My Year of Flops Virtually, Really Lame Case File #113/My Year of Flops II #10: Speed Kills (2018)
It’s impossible to understand the full extent of 2018’s Speed Kills’ staggering, nearly Gotti-level ineptitude and failure without considering its original ambitions. I first heard about Speed Kills when it was announced, to the great delight of bad movie lovers like myself, that in his latest example of astonishingly bad judgment, John Travolta had signed on to star in a fact-based biopic that would also be an exhilarating Virtual Reality experience taking advantage of cutting-edge VR technology.
Virtual reality promised to empower moviegoers. It was supposed to transform them from passive movie-watchers lazily staring at a screen while munching popcorn and slurping soda to movie-doers actively working their way through dazzling, revolutionary cinematic worlds. It was going to change everything. Instead, it changed seemingly nothing.
What if you could live inside your favorite movies? What if you could be the hero instead of a voyeur in the crowd? That’s a pretty exciting proposition. I know plenty of people who would love to live inside the worlds of Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever, grubby, depressing and violence and profanity-filled as they might be.
Asking audiences to imagine what it would be like to live inside a late-period John Travolta vehicle, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. It’s an offer the public most assuredly had no problem refusing. Yet Speed Kills nevertheless allowed a tiny, undiscriminating and uniformly let-down public to EXPERIENCE a John Travolta flop as never before. SMELL the desperation! TASTE the miscalculation, terrible judgment and poor decisions! BREATHE IN the epic sadness! FEEL Travolta’s career slipping away from him, one terrible choice at a time!
Speed Kills was supposed to help popularize Virtual Reality technology by illustrating how smoothly it could be integrated into the right movie. On paper at least, it was the ultimate special feature, a nifty bonus that would allow audiences to literally see movies in a whole different way than ever before. Instead, it was such a flop that the DVD for Speed Kills does not mention the virtual reality angle at all. Instead of having the ultimate special feature, Speed Kills ended up having no special features, since you need a two hundred dollar virtual reality rig in order to experience the Speed Kills VR experience for free.
Speed Kills’ IMDB trivia does not mention its virtual reality component and its Wikipedia page does not exist. It’s almost as if they’re trying to make audiences forget the virtual reality gimmick in its entirety due to its total and complete failure, creatively and commercially. It’s a little like James L. Brooks’ I’ll Do Anything, which eliminated its Prince-written, Twyla Tharp- musical numbers after poor scores from test-audiences. In the process, they excised the film’s most flamboyant and colorful element. In its theatrical version, I’ll Do Anything wanted to be judged as just another muddled comedy-drama and not a musical or a former musical featuring music from the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. On a similar note, the Speed Kills DVD asks us to judge the movie on its own merits, as a leaden and idiotic low-budget movie and not as a spectacularly failed exercise in popularizing and mainstreaming VR.
Speed Kills is essentially Casino to Gotti’s Goodfellas. The parallels between the two are hard to miss. Both films find a 64 year old John Travolta playing a real-life crime figure who died well before the age Travolta was when he played them. In 2018, Travolta played John Gotti, a man who died at sixty-one, and Donald Aronow (Ben Aronow here), who was murdered at fifty-nine.
Travolta also plays Aronow as a much, much younger man. Speed Kills goes back decades, from the Camelot era to the end of the Reagan’s second term. The filmmakers attempts to de-age the two-time Oscar nominee not through digital technology but rather through the old-fashioned “magic” of hair dye blacker than a Black Hole and bronzer that gives the oft-mocked Scientologist’s skin a shade that falls somewhere between that of Donald Trump and an Orange Julius.
We open with a creepy weirdo played by a typecast Tom Sizemore coming to Aronow’s office. He’s supposed to be a sinister figure but he’s got his pants hiked up to his chest, senior citizen-style and it’s hard to fear someone who resembles Grandpa Simpson so closely.
Sizemore’s creep immediately sets off alarms when he tells Aranow’s secretary, “My boss is a very wealthy man. And he wants to buy a boat. And he wants to buy the boat before he goes back to Michigan. Now, look, I’m just trying to give this man some money.”
Aronow tells him to bring his boss in to look at boats like a non-criminal. Instead, Sizemore’s ancient heavy tells Aronow, “My boss took me from the gutter. Gave me a job Everything I have, everything I am, I owe to him. I’d do anything for my boss. Anything and everything. I’d never turn my back on my boss.” Before Aronow can tell him, “Sir, this is a Burger King” our hero is bleeding to death after getting fatally shot.
We then flash back to 1962. Aronow is two and a half decades younger yet confusingly appears to be the same age as he is when he died twenty-five years later. An athletic, Jewish hustler from New York, Aronow is, on paper at least, a figure of incredible glamour and excitement, a man of modest means who blazed a path across the 1960s as a real estate mogul, boat builder and racing champion.
Aronow was the father of the “cigarette boat”, sleek, aerodynamic and blindingly fast boats that were used extensively in transporting drugs to the United States. Aronow’s various business dealings and Jewish faith put him in the orbit of legendary mobster Meyer Lansky (James Remar) who was twenty-five years older than Aronow in real life and a towering patriarch of organized crime who is nevertheless played poorly by a character actor the same age as Travolta.
Like John Gotti, Aronow talks to us directly throughout the film, although just as in Gotti, the filmmakers seem to forget that their star is also narrating the film completely in its second half. Also like John Gotti, Aronow lives his life in montages set to pop songs, many involving the ritualistic consumption of champagne following racing victories and hair metal song titles.
Aronow describes his love-at-first sight giddiness at being introduced to the dangerous, high stakes world of boat racing when he brags, “And boom, just like that, I was in love. The speed, the water, the rush, I wanted it. I needed it. I would have it.” He’s clearly referencing Faster Pussycat singles like “Boom, Just Like That I Was in Love”, “The Speed, The Water, The Rush” and “I Wanted It, I Needed It, I Would Have It.”
It goes without saying that I am a HUGE John Travolta fan. I love the guy. He’s a great actor in addition to being a great movie star. He’s also a great bad actor and a great bad movie star. That’s the side we get here. Speed Kills feels like a deluded vanity project from a dude who still thinks he’s capable of conveying a James Bond level of womanizing, high-flying danger and excitement despite being a weird-looking senior citizen with skin and hair colors unseen in nature with dialogue like, “And Just like their drug-sniffing dogs, once the DEA got the scent, they were hard to shake.”
The filmmakers try to fake their way into making an epic exploration of fast boats, fast women and fast living based on an astonishing true story with the budget of a direct-to-video international coproduction by suggesting the world of boat racing and building through broad strokes, as an endless series of post-victory celebrations rather than actually showing these races in any detail.
Speed Kills ends as it begins, with our anti-hero’s death. Only now we’re EXPERIENCING that death from Aranow’s perspective as his life flashes before his eyes in his moment of death. Or rather, the movie that we’ve just seen flashes before Aronow’s eyes and we are afforded an entirely unnecessary opportunity to reflect on the poor quality of everything that has come before.
It’s supposed to be a victory lap, an opportunity for us to drink the glamour and excitement of everything we’ve just seen. Instead it feels weirdly like an apology, as if the filmmakers are wearily conceding that this is the best they can do.
I did not experience the virtual reality version of Speed Kills because that would entail buying a 200 dollar device solely for the purpose of re-experiencing a movie I had just hated in a clunkier, weirder and even less satisfying fashion. Judging from the glimpses of the movie’s VR version to be found on Youtube, the VR Speed Kills took something that was already terrible and borderline unwatchable and made it much worse.
The VR Speed Kills offers the same dreadful content from the perspective of someone looking around aimlessly in every direction because they’re so goddamn, justifiably bored.
On its own, Speed Kills would be just another clunker from Nicolas Cage’s only real competition for King of Flops. The virtual reality element is what catapults it to true Fiasco status.
Deep into his sixties Travolta’s commitment to world-class flops remains strong. This year alone will see the release of Trading Paint, a racing drama costarring Shania Twain, because God knows Travolta’s last racing dream broke the box office and swept the Oscars. Even more promisingly, he’ll be playing a mentally ill stalker pursuing Devon Sawa in Moose, a motion picture directed by the red hat wearing jackass from Limp Bizkit.
Travolta stubbornly refuses to learn from his mistakes, which is a big part of the reason he’s even better at being terrible than he is at being legitimately good, even brilliant.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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