'Speed Kills': Film Review

"Kills" careers, that is.

John Travolta plays a disgraced speedboat designer in Jodi Scurfield's true-ish crime flick.

One of the least involving crime sagas ever to be toplined by someone who was once a movie star, Jodi Scurfield's Speed Kills offers John Travolta as a smug speedboat racer who ran afoul of both the law and mob. In a career that has included both L. Ron Hubbard-sized disgraces and unforeseeable, charm-filled comebacks, it has never been safe to bet that Travolta was out of the game for good. But with this utterly lifeless pic falling between the critical punching-bag Gotti and other in-post cheapies including a film directed by Fred (Limp Bizkit) Durst, 2018 may be the year that finally does him in.

Based on a true-crime book of the same name, the pic fictionalizes the real racer and entrepreneur Don Aronow as Ben Aronoff, perhaps so it can speculate on his business dealings with mob legend Meyer Lansky without getting sued. But it should have been more worried about defamation lawsuits from the Lansky estate: The gangster who inspired The Godfather's Hyman Roth has never been less impressive than he is here, played by James Remar.

Lansky is just one tease in a script full of dead ends. It's more a list of events than a story, really, revolving around someone who can hardly be called a character. The picture opens with an awkward encounter in which a stranger (Tom Sizemore) shows up at Aronoff's speedboat dealership and tries to intimidate him; Aronoff sends him packing, whereupon another mysterious figure comes to shoot Aronoff dead in the parking lot. (Viewers who have a taste for bad acting, take note: Sizemore's hammy threats will be repeated in full at the movie's end.)

We then flash back 25 years to New Jersey in 1962, when Aronoff — looking not a day younger than he did in his death scene — is ready to leave behind a successful construction career for something new in Miami. Like the second film in a double feature, he says. Settling into his new home there, he tries to calm his fretting wife (Jennifer Esposito) with the hubristic line, "You're swinging with Tarzan now — hang on!"

Aronoff does swing, but his wife doesn't get to participate. Fans who'd like to see the 64-year-old Travolta ogling and groping much younger women will get their fill even if they fall asleep for a while; in the most cringe-inducing of several sequences, he sets his eyes on the trophy girlfriend of the king of Jordan and stalks her on the dance floor. Watching Travolta shuffle stiffly in between rapey stares, you'd never believe he once cut a rug as Vincent Vega, Tony Manero and Danny Zuko.

That woman (Katheryn Winnick's Emily Gowen), of course, can't resist Aronoff's charms. She soon becomes his wife, the script having unceremoniously whisked his Jersey family off the page. The romance is cemented when Aronoff survives a race through Perfect Storm-like waves to make his way back to her. (The cheapness of that sequence's effects makes it look like a Saturday Night Live skit.)

Scurfield's directing debut is marred by all manner of clunkiness, from the embarrassing performance of Kellan Lutz (playing Lansky's chip-on-shoulder nephew, who winds up Aronoff's nemesis) to the tissue-thin montages that try to sell us on Aronoff's second career as a racer and maker of speedboats. Most of that work is done through stock footage and slow-mo shots of Travolta cockily embracing trophies and champagne bottles; when it does actually show him in the water (sometimes with a poor imitation of Jan Hammer's Miami Vice theme on the soundtrack), the action hardly thrills.

Somewhere along the way, the boat biz has cash-flow problems, and Aronoff starts making deliveries for gangsters and selling drug-runners his hottest models for cash. (He also sells the Coast Guard boats with which to chase those smugglers, an irony the film fails to exploit for even one laugh.) Deals with the devil are rarely so devoid of suspense, and it's not just because we already know this dude's going to get popped in the parking lot.

Production companies: Speed Kills Productions, Hannibal Pictures
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: John Travolta, Kellan Lutz, James Remar, Katheryn Winnick, Jennifer Esposito, Matthew Modine, Tom Sizemore
Director: Jodi Scurfield
Screenwriters: David Aaron Cohen, John Luessenhop
Producers: Oscar Generale, Richard Rionda Del Castro, Luillo Ruiz
Executive producer: Rene Besson
Director of photography: Andrzej Sekula
Production designer: Joseph P. Zubor
Costume designer: Amy Andrews
Editor: Randy Bricker
Composer: Geronimo Mercado
Casting directors: Patricia Alonso, Nancy Nayor

Rated R, 102 minutes