Last week Missile Test heaped praise upon William Shatner, for his lifetime contribution to shitty cinema. This week features a different flavor of shitty movie actor — one whose star shined brightly in Hollywood, but whose latter career has been spent in direct-to-video schlock. Who could it be? Bruce Willis? Mel Gibson? Samuel L. Jackson? Morgan Freeman? Denzel Washington? All of those men, some with Academy hardware, have seen their careers drift away from the type of blockbusters that made them famous, but they are not the star of today’s reviewed film. Today’s film stars John Travolta, the one and only 21st century shitty movie actor who can give Nicolas Cage a run for his money.
Speed Kills, the 2018 crime drama from director Jodi Scurfield, stars Travolta as Ben Aronoff, a Miami-based speedboat racer and manufacturer who falls afoul of legendary mobster Meyer Lansky. The screenplay, from David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop, is based on the true crime book of the same name by Arthur Jay Harris. The subject of that book is Donald Aronow, who met his grisly end on a north Miami street in 1987. Why the filmmakers felt the need to change Aronow’s name for the movie is a mystery, but it probably had something to do with lawyers.
The film covers the period of Aronoff’s life from his arrival in Miami in 1962, to the mob hit that killed him in 1987. In real life, Aronow was murdered when he was 57. Travolta, meanwhile, was in his mid-60s when this was filmed, and he had to play the character at half that age for much of the film. Viewers are treated to a wonderful array of low-budget makeup work and wigmaking. Right there is enough sublime shittiness for the true connoisseur. But there’s more.
Scurfield must be a Scorcese fan, because the majority of this film is a straight ripoff of Scorcese’s gangster film style. A frenetic pace, a large cast of characters that are hard to keep track of, voiceovers, a flashy soundtrack (in this case, the film didn’t have the budget for the Stones or Sinatra, so all the music is a strange facsimile thereof) — it’s all there. Except for quality. It’s a pale imitation of one of cinema’s giants. The good news is that it’s a perfectly silly ride.
We see Aronoff fall in love with speedboats, his rise as a racer and boat maker, his constant attempts to fend off mob influence, the collapse of his marriage, and every cliché in the modern gangster movie playbook. And through it all we are treated to the unique talents of John Travolta. At times there were flashes of the true skill that made him a star, and at other times we see exactly why he’s spending his time making trash like this these days.
That’s not all on him, though. Scene after scene in this movie feels rushed, as if Scurfield was trying to pack a three-hour flick into this film’s 102-minute running time. The pacing, especially in the first half, is awful. Scurfield’s relentlessness must have carried over into actual filming, as many scenes feel as rehearsed as a daytime soap opera.
It’s not like this film is bereft of acting talent, either. Besides Travolta, there’s Jennifer Esposito as wife #1, Katheryn Winnick as wife #2, Tom Sizemore as a mob enforcer, Matthew Modine as George H.W. Bush(!), and James Remar as Meyer Lansky(!!). Sure, that’s not an extraordinary assemblage, but it’s more than this flick deserved.
This film is clearly shit. But those viewers who make it through the first half will find that the pace settles down. Scurfield begins to tell a real story in the second half, and it was compelling enough for me to do the quick research into Aronow noted above. It’s here that Travolta, and the other cast members, are able to show that, yes, they still belong in the business. It’s almost a tale of two movies. The cheapness of the production still keeps this second half aligned with the first, however.
The entire package is a rollercoaster ride of substandard cinema. Normally, one could expect a film like this to be an unwatchable bore. Instead, it’s stupid fun.
Sublime shittiness includes:
- One of Aronoff’s dates exclaiming at a nightclub, “King Hussein of Jordan? Now you KNOW this is the spot!”
- Travolta, once upon a time an excellent dancer, having a scene where he dances like your great-grandfather at your cousin’s wedding.
- Matthew Modine as the elder Bush, yet with an accent channeling the younger Bush.
- A boat race in heavy seas, featuring CGI not fit for a workplace safety training video. It must be seen to be believed.
This film has no business being as enjoyable as it is. Yet, here we are. Speed Kills doesn’t quite crack the top fifty of the Watchability Index, that hallowed ground of bad movies, but it does settle well into the top half, bumping Pieces out of the #77 slot. Watch it for the schadenfreude, watch it for the wigs, watch it for the ersatz Scorcese-ness of it all.