Before he was sentenced to life in prison four years ago, mobster John Gotti had become a uniquely New York kind of folk hero, celebrated for his fashion sense, his media savvy and his ability to throw a terrific street party — all traits the local citizenry hold dear. When he beat his first federal racketeering rap in 1987, he earned a hero’s welcome and a name change, transmogrifying from the Dapper Don to the Teflon Don in the tabloid papers and local newscasts.
Filmed in Toronto and New York by HBO Pictures. Executive producer, Gary Lucchesi; producer, David Coatsworth; director, Robert Harmon; writer, Steve Shagan; It’s too bad “Gotti” doesn’t delve more deeply into the relationship between the swaggering gangster and the city with which he shared such a weirdly cozy symbiosis. This HBO film is a marvelously cast and technically efficient biopic. But Steve Shagan’s screenplay is as tight-lipped about Gotti’s character as the man himself was, and the locations — it was shot mostly in Toronto — lack much in the way of Gotham flavor. Result is a fairly standard-issue gangster flick with abundant use of the F-word and a moderate body count of 11 (no “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” this), two of them non-Mob-related.
“Gotti” opens with Armand Assante’s Don preparing to enter the maximum security prison in Illinois, and quickly flashes back to the early ’70s and his rise through the Gambino family from small change to capo. His mentor, Neil Dellacroce (Anthony Quinn), is underboss to the fading Carlo Gambino (Marc Lawrence). When Gambino asks Gotti to murder someone as a personal favor, he’s also forced to bring on the job a lieutenant of Paul Castellano (Richard Sarafian, several steps up the food chain from the sleazebag he played last month in Showtime’s “Miami Hustle”). The coked-up assistant freaks during the hit; Gotti has him killed — a violation of Mafia rules — and ends up spending three years in jail.
“John, you cannot whack a man on somebody else’s crew,” Dellacroce tells Gotti.
His enmity with Castellano cemented, Gotti goes nuts when Gambino names Castellano, not Dellacroce, as his successor. Eventually, Gotti has Castellano killed outside a midtown steak house, in one of the most sensational and brazen gangland murders since the heyday of Al Capone. Gotti ascends to the top, and Salvatore Gravano (William Forsythe) — aka Sammy the Bull, another made-for-the-tabs monicker — rises with him as underboss. It’s Sammy, of course , who will eventually prove Gotti’s undoing, singing for the feds in return for a few years in jail and a life in the witness protection program, despite having admitted to at least 19 brutal slayings.
Though Assante, Quinn and Forsythe have an actor’s field day, “Gotti” neither glorifies nor vilifies its subject, which is a problem. The film veers from any representation of what exactly it is that organized crime does. Neither does it go beyond making the case that Gotti was a daring and ruthless aggressor, willing to break firmly held rules to get to the top. The role of his wife, Vicky (Alberta Watson), is laughably, if inevitably, underwritten. There’s a far greater tie between man and mentor than man and wife, which is surely accurate but results in a certain redundancy, not to mention men kissing each other’s cheeks and foreheads a lot.
Effective in supporting performances are Vincent Pastore as Gotti’s screw-up friend Angelo Ruggiero, Frank Vincent as another captain, and Al Waxman as lawyer Bruce Cutler. The movie has a few longueurs, but basically it’s smoothly paced by director Robert Harmon. And if nothing else, Shagan reveals an interesting take on his antihero’s sense of perspective. Gotti argues — not ineffectively — that his crimes pale beside those of Richard Nixon in the ’70s and arbitrageurs in the ’80s. “You know why the people in this city love me?” he asks. “I’m beating the same system now that’s fucking them every day.” For a while, at any rate.