STUDIO: Koch Vision
RUNNING TIME: 173 minutes
The youngest Turturro kills Italian-Americans dead, snitches on Tom Sizemore and gets away with it all. The American dream, baby, the American dream.
Nicholas Turturro, Tom Sizemore, Abe Vigoda, Michael Imperioli and about half the cast of ‘The Sopranos’.
Follow Sammy “The Bull” Gravano from humble beginnings to becoming the right hand man of the Teflon Don himself. If it happened this way, then every mob movie ever in the history of always was based off this story because it hits all the appropriate notes. Tom Sizemore eats the scenery like chewable cocaine at a Heidi Fleiss party.
Being a mobster simultaneously seems like the coolest thing in the world and the most unoriginal thing, too. If you’ve seen ‘Goodfellas’, you’ve seen ‘Witness to the Mob’. It does all the right moves: there’s a young up and coming wiseguy, murder, betrayal, assassination, corruption, extortion and even FBI snitching that makes it essentially ‘2 Good 2 Fellas’. Now, either the true life stories are almost exactly identical, or Hollywood scriptwriters are so in love with ‘The Godfather’ formula that it will twist the facts to suit the story, even if the story is a carbon copy of a dozen movies that came before.
Sammy Gravano is one of those guys who dreams about getting into the “life”. He and his friends even quote ‘The Godfather’ to each other. So after a few small time deals and murders for other small timers, the invite comes to join the famed Gambino crime family and Sammy jumps at the chance and runs with it. He succeeds in business, marries a still annoying Debi Mazar and most importantly, becomes a friend and ally to “the” John Gotti (Tom Sizemore), who when we first meet him is simply John Gotti. But the boy has plans, and he intends to take Sammy with him.
John Gotti is a fantastic figure to show on film, heck he’s practically a movie star already. He’s boastful, charismatic and full of that Hollywood swagger. Movies about him have already been made, but you can only ever really know someone by the company he keeps and if ‘Witness to the Mob’ does one thing right, it’s focus on Sammy Gravano, the star witness in the case against Gotti. He’s a misunderstood smart guy with a vicious streak in him, he can see the crossroads several feet before anybody else. Turturro plays him as close to human as possible and creates a very likable character who, despite all the shitty, shitty things he does, such as killing relatives, we still cheer for. We cheer half out of our liking him so much, and half because the only other characters worth a damn are Gotti and Sammy’s many, many victims, and we only care for them because 9 times out of 10, they’re getting a raw deal.
But for every subdued moment from Turturro, Sizemore cranks it up to 11. I don’t even think he’s acting, they just gave him a bag of blow before the scene started and told him to go nuts. Even when he’s almost whispering, he’s still growling in that typical Sizemore way. Tom Sizemore is always a joy to watch and when he becomes a major character halfway through the three hour film, it’s a relief because there’s only so much overwrought Sammy voice over and stale situations we can endure before we need a jolt of life. Sizemore is that jolt, and the film rides it until the end.
Every third character who appears is someone you’ll recognize. When David Chase was casting for The Sopranos, he turned this movie on and picked every Italian looking motherfucker there. You’ll see Paulie Walnuts, Chris, Phil Leotardo, hell, even Janice Soprano is related to the main actor here. It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t playing exactly the same guys with exactly the same mannerisms but without the dimensions that Chase & Co would give them later.
For a TV movie, it’s exceptionally violent (by 1998 standards, today no parent would even bat an eyelash at the murders). In fact, the violent scenes are where the writing and acting come together because while there are plenty of random deaths, various hits pulled on small players, there are just as many important kills. Sammy is present at all of them and Turturro plays it wonderfully, effectively portraying the doubt he has about them. He’s a man with a soul, a family man, a friend and community member, but with every murder he sinks farther away. He rarely talks about it, which is a shame, but the little expressions on his face give the game away and it helps us to sympathize, but never identify, with him.
I keep bringing up other mobster films because when a movie, even a made for TV movie, is this trite and predictable, you can’t help but compare it to the better films it has picked its pieces from. It does them all decently and there are certainly moments when you find yourself yelling at the screen, telling Sammy to not do something, but you find yourself doing the same at Goodfellas, at The Godfather, at The Sopranos, too.
It is through sheer force of will from Sizemore and Turturro that the movie doesn’t stall under its own weight. They help elevate a very standard mob movie to something worth watching, and even though you know how it ends, it is the relationship between Sammy and Gotti that forces you to stick with it until the finish line.
It certainly looks like a made for TV movie. Standard frame size and the depth and focus is extremely flat, allowing everything to be visible on frame at any moment. The camera is stationary most of the time which hinders the forward progress, making the film stand still. The sound is mixed decently but a few moments are lost among either too much noise or actors speaking a bit too low.
No extra features on the 2 disc DVD set (half the movie on each disc). Considering the wealth of information on the real John Gotti, it seems like a glaring oversight to better equip viewers with an understanding of the man.