There have been many ups and downs in John Travolta’s career, which currently rests in a valley equivalent to the one he’d hit just before “Pulp Fiction” a quarter-century ago. You might think anything would be an improvement after “Gotti.” Yet the new “Speed Kills” not only isn’t appreciably better, it’s also bad in much the same way: another cliché-riddled portrait of an underworld-tied figure the movie seems to celebrate as one ballsy SOB, though viewers may find his personality warrants more fumigation than admiration.

Portraying the high-flying times and violent death of the erstwhile “King of Powerboats,” this slick yet hapless concoction offers Travolta an opportunity to swagger humorlessly, clutching babes and trophies for nearly 100 minutes. What’s not to like? Well, everything — unless you’re the star, who seems convinced that this embarrassingly cloddish biopic-slash-thriller actually flatters both him and its subject.

Travolta’s best roles have tapped a slightly goofy sweetness; his worst ones almost invariably aimed to strike a note of cut-the-crap machismo he cannot pull off. As “Ben Aronoff,” he’s a waxwork of Swinging Sixties “big shot”-dom, living out the most garishly material version of the American Dream like Dean Martin minus the wink. We’re meant to find him charismatic and charming, yet he seems like a colossal jerk. “Speed” is the kind of vanity project so tone-deaf that it repeatedly falls into the hoariest sandtraps imaginable — such as beginning with our protagonist’s death, then having him narrate the subsequent feature-length flashback.

In real life, Don Aronow was a New Jersey construction contractor who moved to Miami and became even more successful as a builder, competitive racer, and seller of high-end speedboats. They were popular with fellow sportsmen, celebrities, royalty, politicians — and drug smugglers. In 1987, he was gunned down in a presumed contract hit that went unsolved for some years. The extent of Aronow’s involvement (even unwittingly or unwillingly) in organized crime remains debated.

In its press materials, “Speed Kills,” though “based on” a true-crime tome, makes the confusing statement that “For the purpose of this film, the historical events surrounding Don Aronow’s life and tragic death have been definitively researched … [but] it should be noted that many characters are an amalgamation and fictionalized.”

Beyond the obvious legal dodge, what this means is that the movie gets to have it both ways, painting “Ben Aronoff” as cool enough to know famous mobsters personally, without being a “made man” himself. Or is he? The paint-by-numbers screenplay fudges that question by introducing Ben in the early 1960s, having to leave Jersey with his family in a hurry because of some vague “trouble.”

Later on, when he’s built himself a new career, no less than Meyer Lansky (James Remar) insists he doesn’t have the option of being “independent.” What are the roots of Ben’s supposed obligation? Such specifics are avoided here, so the film can give him stock movie-gangster glamour, yet imply he never wants be involved in criminal doings — he’s only forced into them by threats and business debts.

Those debts are apparently Ben’s fault for neglecting the business side of his business, being more interested in winning races and bedding cocktail waitresses. “Speed Kills” seems to agree with him that such tedious details shouldn’t occupy a man born to live large. Ditto the family he neglects, shrugging off a first marriage to Kathy (Jennifer Esposito) when she berates him for showing up only after son Andy (Charlie Gillespie) is left paralyzed by a car accident. Our protagonist guiltily offers some weird words of hospital bedside comfort (“Don’t worry, we’ll get this right”), then takes his now-disabled kid to the racetrack … and that is the last we hear of either son or wife.

Ben appears to quit philandering for much-younger Spouse No. 2 Emily (Katheryn Winnick), one more character here in awe of his purported magnetism. But the most thankless role is played by Michael Weston, whose lawyer “Shelley Katz” keeps popping up just to explain plot points and remind Ben what a fabulous, incorrigible man he is.

None of these side relationships are worked out in any depth sufficient to distract from the gist, which is to portray Aronoff as a bold individualist who can’t sweat small stuff because he’s too busy winning. That last word that has gained a bit of a dunce cap recently, and “Speed Kills” sure does sharpen its point. An inordinate amount of time here is taken up by what you might term “montages of triumph,” in which Travolta smirks as he’s handed gold watches, women, and cocktails in medium shots intercut with archival footage of races won.

While surely exhilarating for the competitor, speedboating is not really the most cinematic sport. Boats going fast while a movie star shakes his fists and shouts “Yeah! Woo-hoo!” constitute the primary “action” here, but an action movie they do not make. There’s one sequence where our hero recklessly pushes through a huge sea storm rather than quit a race. But it’s too obviously CGI-dependent to thrill, and the point seems to be not brave resiliency but the the monumental force of a blowhard’s ego.

This may be unfair to the real Aronow, who did pilot through just such a tempest, and who remains as laureled as anyone in powerboat racing history. But “Speed Kills” doesn’t make his achievements vivid — in fact, it doesn’t address at all to what extent he was involved in designing his trademark boats (most famously “The Cigarette”). Emphasizing personal style over substance, by omission the film makes him appear simply a wealthy thrill-seeker.

A first directorial feature for one Jodi Scurfield (whose bio is nowhere to be found in press notes or anywhere else), “Speed Kills” feels like a movie made by a committee whose sub-committees stopped speaking to each other. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing, with images sometimes freeze-framed so Travolta’s dead voiceover narrator can inform audiences who or what they’re looking at. Dialogue often sounds excavated from some musty trunk of 30-year-old screenplays. The design contributors make much of colorful changes in costume, decor, and music over the story’s quarter-century span, but assume we won’t notice or care about period anachronisms.

There are a lot of familiar faces seen in one-dimensional support roles, from Kellen Lutz as an antagonistic Lansky nephew to a miscast Matthew Modine as then-Vice President George H.W. Bush (an actual friend of Aronow’s). As portrayed here, the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” does appear to have harried the cocaine trade in which Aronow’s boats played a favored courier role. A sharper movie than this one might’ve mined more than a passing “Go figure!” out of the daft fact that its hero was simultaneously selling aquatic transport to both government agents and their criminal quarry. “Speed Kills” could even have worked as a black comedy — but the few laughs it does deliver aren’t the intentional kind.

Film Review: ‘Speed Kills’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Nov. 11, 2018. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: <strong>102 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A Saban Films release of an SF, Hannibal Classics presentation of a Speed Kills, Hannibal production, in association with the Fyzz Facility, Blue Rider Pictures, JTP Films, Pimienta Film Co. Producers: Richard Rionda Del Castro, Luillo Ruiz, Oscar Generale. Executive producers: Patricia Eberle, Cam Cannon, Moshe Diamant, Robert A. Ferretti, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Walter Josten, Luis Riefkohl, Alistair Burlingham, Charlie Dombeck, Lindsey Roth, Farouk Hadef, Joe Lemmon, Anson Downes, Linda Favila, William V. Bromiley Jr., Shanan Becker, Ness Saban, Vladimir Fernandes, Claiton Fernandes, Euzebio Munhoz Jr., Balan Melarkode, Jamal Sannan, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Martin J. Barab, Grace Collins, Guy Griffithe, Silvio Sardi.
  • Crew: Director: Jodi Scurfield. Screenplay: David Aaron Cohen, John Luessenhop; story: Paul Castro, Cohen, Lussenhop, based on the book by Arthur J. Harris. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Andrzej Sekula. Editor: Randy Bricker. Music: Geronimo Mercado.
  • With: John Travolta, Katheryn Winnick, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Weston, Jordi Molla, Amaury Nolasco, Matthew Modine, James Remar, Kellan Lutz, Charlie Gillespie, Moran Alias, Tom Sizemore, Mike Massa, Luis Da Silva Jr., Keith Hudson.