The first announcements about Speed Kills promised a project primed for parody. The posters, the descriptions, and the advance word made me ready to watch Speed Killsin the very special way one reserves for Tommy Wiseau’s legendary The Room, or one of the beloved Neil Breen efforts that have come to define the more curious end of the movie spectrum.
Against such an expectation, Speed Kills is a disappointment. This is not a good movie. This is not some overlooked work that’s just got bad press. The simple truth is that Speed Kills is nothing worse than a well-intentioned misfire.
Speed Kills is based on a book by the same name about the true-life exploits of Don Aronow, renamed Ben Aronoff for the movie and played by John Travolta. He was apparently a mob-connected speedboat racer who lived a life so ready for biopic exploitation, it’s amazing it took this long for a movie to get made. The heyday for these sorts of films was the 1990s, and so Speed Kills suffers from ill timing among everything else.
You can’t help but wonder what a story like this would have been in the hands of a different director. It’s clear from the beginning that this movie aspires to be a Scorsese film. Disregarding genre, you’d imagine someone like a Kathryn Bigelow or Michael Mann for a story like this, a director capable of intimate portraits at epic scale. The material was simply bigger than the writers and director knew how to handle, and we’re left chasing the dream of a memorable film we can never realize. This could have made a decent limited-run miniseries on Netflix, had it been managed properly. As it’s assembled now, it’s the skeletal outline of a movie. The narrative jumps from scene to scene without proper interstitials to connect them into real coherence.
In all likelihood, that’s because this project is distracted by its own desire to be in the technological forefront. It was cut into digestible VR “episodes” for the Oculus Rift experience, enabling the viewer to look around the environment during key scenes. Given that they were approaching the movie with this in mind, it’s likely why it feels like a collection of cut scenes from a video game. It’s possibly why some of the effects actually look like they’re *from* a video game.
The most disorienting thing about Speed Kills, though, is that despite the patina of a low-budget production, the roster is full of well-known faces. Jennifer Esposito, who’s always deserved more recognition, appears briefly. Tom Sizemore, recently of Twin Peaks: The Return, makes a quirky turn hinting at an effort to define a character, despite one of the clunkiest introductions ever put to film. Matthew Modine appears as George H.W. Bush. James Remar appears as legendary gangster Myer Lanksy. You’re not used to a roster like that in a production like this.
Since he’s in nearly every scene, the focus naturally falls on Travolta. You expect the star of a vanity project to rise to the occasion and act as the glue of the production. Unfortunately, during most of his time onscreen, he seems uncomfortable in his own skin. The hair and makeup don’t do any particular favours either, and at points are downright distracting. As for his performance, it’s not that it’s “bad” so much as it’s “empty.” He’s clearly not been given the direction he needs to bring life to this character; none of the actors seem to have been. This is acting by reflex, with everyone unable to connect to the script completely. There is a distance and artifice reminiscent of some of David Lynch’s odder works, but without the intentionality. It’s an oddly antiseptic feeling in a story that should be brimming with passion.
A symptom of Travolta’s difficulty finding the character are his mannerisms, which have no hook other than habit. For example, he smokes cigarettes like Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction; he moves like Vic Deakins in Broken Arrow. The problem is that the exaggerated movements don’t belong to this character or this context and so play as just affectation. Amazingly, he still manages enjoyable moments with various players through the movie. This is a testament to his raw skill and those around him in those moments. He seems to have chemistry with Michael Weston, and his scenes with Remar are unremarkable but have a glimmer of life. His showdown with Sizemore is bizarre and fascinating. This is a talented group of people in need of direction they never get. The resulting impression is that the material fails them, not vice versa.
Perhaps that’s what motivates so much of the reaction to Speed Kills. We are witnesses to the diminishing of a star. We want him to shine. But is it any more ignominious than the parabolic implosion of stars like Schwarzenegger? Even Connery went through a tumultuous period (Zardoz!) before a late career resuscitation. Travolta’s already had a career resuscitation or two, and hope springs eternal for another.
Speed Kills, however, is not that moment.
Speed Kills is available on DVD/BluRay from Signature Entertainment from Monday January 21st.