In Speed Kills, John Travolta refines a look he heavily relied upon in June’s Gotti: a wincing, pained expression that suggests he might be angry, or he might be sad, or he might just be constipated, which is making him angry and sad at the same time.
Whether he’s facing off against a professional adversary, arguing with his mob benefactors, or enjoying a romantic moment with one of his many paramours, Travolta furrows his brow and squints his eyes like he’s desperately holding something in, all from beneath a hairpiece that appears to have been glued carelessly onto the top of his head. Delivering a veritable compendium of awkward movements and strained smiles, he’s like an animatronic robot lookalike of the Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction icon.
If Travolta seems like a pale photocopy of his former self in Speed Kills (whose posters are instant camp classics), it’s partially due to the fact that the film, like Gotti before it, is a wholly inept affair that allows its A-list headliner to ham it up at every possible moment, no matter the nonsensicality at hand. And nonsensicality is the only thing delivered by John Luessenhop’s drama (in theaters and on VOD Nov. 16), a thinly veiled biopic of cigarette boat magnate Don Aronow that’s so clumsy, you can practically hear it clanking and clunking along as it lurches from one unrelated and unintentionally hilarious scene to another.
Did I mention that, for cinephiles who want to enjoy their amateurish entertainment from the inside, you’ll also be able to watch an episodic companion-piece version of Speed Kills in virtual reality? The thrill of Travolta’s mannered acting! The cornball fury of Kellen Lutz! The intensity of Tom Sizemore looking like he’s about to keel over from who-knows-what! The excitement of Matthew Modine momentarily showing up to cackle like a maniac as... George H.W. Bush?!? Such madness can be yours if you take a ride with this most absurd and inane of cinematic endeavors, which, no matter the format in which it’s experienced, is a new nadir for its famous lead.
In a sign of the film’s dismal “cleverness,” Speed Kills is loosely based on the life of Don Aronow but, here, he’s called Ben Aronoff, and he’s brought to life by Travolta as a cocky faux-gangster who celebrates every racing and business triumph with champagne. Having moved to Miami following his success as a New Jersey construction bigwig, Aronoff immediately becomes enamored with powerboats. No sooner has he driven one than, in the first of many cuts that randomly propel the material forward in time, he’s running a successful boating business. “Boom! Just like that, I was in love. The speed, the water, the rush. I wanted it, I needed it, I would have it,” he says amidst yelling “yee-haw!” at the wheel of a craft. Even his wife Kathy (Jennifer Esposito), whose hair bun and dress are the first clues that the material is set in 1969, admits that “it is kinda sexy.”
Speed Kills opens with a scene (presumably set in 1987) in which Aronoff is gunned down in his parking lot, and then leaps backward in time a quarter century. Regardless of that transition, however, Travolta barely looks twenty-five minutes younger during the ensuing action, which charts his rise to fame and fortune while simultaneously trying to break free from drug-trafficking organized crime, here embodied by James Remar’s Meyer Lansky, who rails at Aronoff for wanting an independent “new beginning.” As with Aronoff’s history as a gym teacher (?) and construction tycoon in New Jersey, this relationship is barely sketched; then again, it’s hard to expect deft storytelling when the script has Aronoff convince Kathy to believe in his plans by saying, “You’re swinging with Tarzan now. Hang on.”
Aronoff hooks up with a shady lawyer (Michael Weston) and develops a rivalry with Lansky’s nephew Robbie Reamer (Lutz)—yes, that’s his real name, and he has the goofy goatee to match! Aronoff’s boat sports “007” on its hull, and during one race, an announcer states, “James Bond himself has taken the lead,” which is as baffling as every other haphazard development in this fiasco. Aronoff’s son Andy is paralyzed in a car accident, Aronoff cheats on his wife (in cringe-worthy love scenes), and then those family members simply disappear from the film altogether, never to be heard from or mentioned again. Having ditched those dead weights, Aronoff shacks up with beauty Emily (Katheryn Winnick)—whom he steals from the Shah of Iran!—and races Lutz in what may be the most poorly CGI’ed sequence in recent memory.
A lot of this takes place on barely furnished sets, and is shot in slow-motion, which doesn’t help. Most of it is also marked by irrational and out-of-left-field Aronoff pronouncements and outbursts. It’s not clear if those are the byproduct of significant edits that left exposition on the cutting-room floor, or simply the man’s insanity. We don’t even learn that he’s from Brooklyn until an offhand aside two-thirds of the way through the film. And as for his Judaism? That’s only revealed when a DEA agent (Amaury Nolasco) begins an anecdote by saying, “I read this book once, by a Jewish guy.” It’s even worse than it sounds.
“I don’t know what that means,” Emily says to Aronoff at one point, thereby articulating the inevitable thoughts of Speed Kill’s viewers. More perplexing than the plot, though, is Travolta’s continued 2018 slide, both on and off the big screen.
Earlier this year, ex-Scientologist Jeffrey Augustine claimed that devout Scientologist Travolta—who for years has been dogged by rumors that he’s gay, a no-no in the church—has “got a dark side and he’s reckless.” That came on the heels of a recently unearthed 2000 police report in which a male masseur accused Travolta of “sexual battery” (one of several such allegations), as well as stories suggesting that he and fellow Scientology titan Tom Cruise are engaged in a bitter feud. Nonetheless, Travolta has stuck by the church, telling The Hollywood Reporter in May that “I practice Scientology, and we do very simple things to get ourselves in better shape: take care of yourself, get good sleep, be better parents, be productive, be motivated. It sounds simple, but they all contribute to your well-being.”
While those personal controversies haven’t improved the actor’s professional well-being, his turn as Robert Shapiro in FX’s 2015-2016 mini-series American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson did indicate that he was still capable of being a charismatic performer—not so in Gotti and now Speed Kills, which share a number of unfortunate similarities: Travolta affecting a Brooklyn accent; hobnobbing with mafiosi; grieving a tragedy involving his son; and making cocky pronouncements about his greatness directly to the audience. In both cases, he vainly tries to glorify a repugnant creep by indulging in one-note bluster, never seeming the least bit comfortable in the process—or aware that he’s flailing about in a third-rate undertaking.
It’s a long way from the star’s glory days—and the fact that his next project, Moose, is an apparent riff on The Fan and directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst doesn’t inspire confidence that a comeback is imminent. Of course, with a career as illustrious as Travolta’s, a few misbegotten projects aren’t capable of terminally sullying his legacy. Yet in light of the embarrassing Speed Kills, it might be best if he stops trying to test that idea.