Film Review: Speed Kills

1980s-set crime story is good-looking and features a solid cast, but the story is nothing new. Expect a quick exit from theatres for home markets.
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1987: Miami speedboat magnate Ben Aronoff’s (John Travolta) showroom is visited by a vaguely but none-too-subtly threatening thug. It’s clear that some things have come home to roost, and while Aronoff puts up a tough front, he wastes no time jumping into his car, only to find himself face-to-face with a gunman.

Cut to 25 years earlier, in New Jersey: A younger Ben (still played by Travolta, who though well-preserved in no way looks decades younger) is going through a crisis. Having built and sold a profitable construction business, he’s itching to start over…quickly and completely, the way you do when your business practices haven’t been 100% pure and you want to put some serious distance between yourself and your old associates. So he relocates his wife and children to Miami, where an old acquaintance suggests he get in touch with legendary gangster Meyer Lansky (James Remar) when he’s ready to do some business.

But Ben wants to turn over a new leaf, and after discovering the macho joys of speedboat racing, launches a new venture building state-of-the-art boats for rich folks. It’s a smashing success, though it costs him his first marriage…but no matter: He finds a hot new wife, Kathy (Jennifer Esposito)—she once dated King Hussein!—and with his loyal lawyer Shelley Katz (Michael Weston) continues to prosper. Predictably enough, Ben is soon lured into back into questionable relationships and the only question is whether he’s going to cut a deal with the feds and go into witness protection or try to extricate himself with his deluxe lifestyle more or less intact.

Based on Arthur J. Harris’ true-crime book of the same title, Speed Kills was developed as both an immersive virtual-reality project and as a conventional film. And conventional the film is: The bones of the story—a fundamentally decent man tries to outrun his shady past but the past won’t stay gone—could have been written in the 1930s and the large-scale Florida drug-dealing aspects are drawn from the same influences as “Miami Vice.” You can see the project’s appeal: state-of-the-art technology, gorgeous locations—say what you will about South Florida, it’s ridiculously beautiful—and a timeless conflict between a man’s baser instincts and his aspirations. Ben loves his family and imagines creating something beautiful—speedboats so sleek, awesomely powerful and sexy that nature couldn’t compare—but he loves his dream of being the biggest fish in Biscayne Bay even more.

Polish-born cinematographer Andrzej Sekula’s work is beautiful, though the South Florida landscape doesn’t need much beautifying—it’s the stuff of which dreams are made—and it’s clear that some care and craft have been brought to the project. Which is why it’s such a shame to feel compelled to acknowledge that minus the VR aspect it’s just a good-looking throwback to mid-’80s visual style of the widely imitated “Miami Vice.” And the cast of wiseguys, feds and hangers-on is crowded; it’s hard not to feel that the story might have been a better fit for a two-part television event, as they’re now called.

That said, Twilight star Kellan Lutz is all but unrecognizable as the volatile Robbie Reemer, Lansky’s nephew, and brings a nice touch of simmering resentment and ferocious insecurity to the part, while Matthew Modine pops up in what amounts to little more than a cameo as then-Vice President George W. Bush—who’d have thought he had a thing for fast boats? The voiceover narration by Aronoff, however, is heavy=handed, unnecessary and recalls a classic film to which it’s very hard to live up. Ultimately, Speed Kills feels startlingly like a 1990s direct-to-video action movie with an inexplicably inflated budget.