Name a famous mobster.
All right, so that was easy. Maybe you said Al Capone, who (unfortunately) remains a souvenir-shop-coffee-mug-cartoon-mascot symbol in Chicago. Or Lucky Luciano or Meyer Lansky or Carlo Gambino or Tony Accardo.
Or John Gotti.
Now: Name a famous LIVING mobster.
Thankfully, organized crime ain’t what it used to be — and the days of certain factions of the mainstream media breathlessly covering the Outfit and its leaders are long gone.
The long-delayed biopic “Gotti” is an entertaining and well-acted but uneven B-movie about one of the last celebrity mobsters, the man called “The Dapper Don” for his wardrobe, and “The Teflon Don” after three acquittals in the 1980s.
We never came up with a nickname to describe Gotti when he was the Convicted Don, the Imprisoned Don, the Terminally Ill Don. We never came up with a slick moniker to encapsulate Gotti’s widespread and violent criminal activities.
Part mob thriller and part domestic drama, “Gotti” certainly doesn’t pull its punches when re-creating such violent chapters as the Gotti-orchestrated hit on Paul Castellano outside Sparks Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan — but it spends more time on the political maneuverings within the New York mob in the 1970s and 1980s, and on the relationship between Gotti Sr. and his namesake son. (The movie is based on John Gotti Jr.’s memoir, “Shadow of My Father.”)
John Travolta (who was attached to this project for seven years, through changes of directors and supporting cast and producers) portrays Gotti as an egomaniacal, swaggering, at times ruthlessly ambitious gangster on the rise — but also a loyal friend and devoted family man.
(When it comes to playing heroes and villains, Travolta has created iconic and lasting characters on both sides, from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Grease” to “Urban Cowboy” to “Pulp Fiction” and “Broken Arrow” and “The Punisher.”)
Early in the film, we see an almost unrecognizable Travolta in a prison jumpsuit, playing Gotti near the end of his life, his hair gone and his face and body ravaged by cancer.
Gotti sits across the table from his son, John Jr. (Spencer Lofranco, in a solid performance), who says he is thinking of taking a deal from the feds so he can do his time and get on with his life.
Gotti Sr. is outraged. He still lives by the old “codes.” You never rat on your associates — and you never humble yourself by pleading guilty and publicly admitting wrongdoing.
Cue the flashbacks and the Scorsese-influenced montages. (Although in a welcome anachronistic touch, Pitbull composed the score.) It’s time to “Meet the Gottis” — including of course John Sr.’s flashy and fiercely protective wife Victoria (played by Travolta’s real-life wife, Kelly Preston, who’s quite good in a too-small role.)
Director Kevin Connolly (this is his third feature behind the camera, but he’s best known for playing “E” on the HBO series “Entourage”) clearly knows both the history of Gotti and the history of mob movies. At times “Gotti” takes on the feel of a low-budget “Goodfellas,” but the camerawork is at best competent, the editing is choppy, and the dialogue doesn’t come close to having the sting or the buzz or the darkly humorous touches of a Scorsese gangster film.
Veteran character actors Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey and Pruitt Taylor Vince add authenticity and weight playing some of Gotti’s most infamous associates. (William DeMeo is less than memorable as the murderous traitor Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.)
Travolta is a commanding presence playing all kinds of notes, from perversely proud papa (he beams when Junior becomes a made man) to slick mob operator to the neighborhood godfather who bails out struggling local businesses, looks out for the old ladies carting their groceries down the street — and throws lavish fireworks bashes every Fourth of July.
But aside from the wardrobe and the makeup, “Gotti” falls far short of capturing period-piece details and never immerses us in the era. Nor does it fully capture the monstrous, casually murderous, thoroughly rotten core of a man who might have looked sharp and might have been a folk hero in his neighborhood — but rose to power and fame on bloodshed and evil and a lifetime of corruption.
Vertical Releasing presents a film directed by Kevin Connolly and written by Leo Rossi and Lem Dobbs. Rated R (for strong violence and pervasive language). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.