My favorite part of Speed Kills, the quasi-biopic starring John Travolta, comes around the halfway point. In a smoky Miami nightclub, the King of Jordan, Hussein bin Talal, introduces his womanizing, offshore-racing business associate with a stately declaration fit for a king. “My friends, you can’t say Miami without saying … Ben Aronoff.” [Cue record scratch.]
Of course, the combination of a three-letter name with a conspicuous Russian surname is a dead giveaway: Travolta is portraying champion racer and self-made millionaire Don Aronow. Or at least he’s trying. The swagger is there, as is a touch of 1980’s master-of-the-universe arrogance. But something is missing, and “Ben Aronoff” comes off as nothing more than a caricature. In his review, critic Simon Abrams wrote “I can’t recommend Speed Kills to anyone because it’s not even good enough to gawk at.” And he’s not alone. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a decisive zero percent rating—along with Jaws: The Revenge and The Nutcracker in 3D—which might explain why you’ve probably never heard of it.
What happened? How did a film chockablock with all the right ingredients—including a leading-name actor, the mob, a mysterious murder, drug running, sex, fast boats and a larger-than-life personality—crash and burn so badly? Described as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street on boats,’ it enjoyed a very limited release last year before it was ushered, DOA, to the made-for-TV-movie graveyard. It now resides on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime; the latter where it’s priced the fairest (read: free), waiting for a brave soul (read: masochist) to make it through its over 100-minute run time.
But those should be some exciting minutes! Aronoff, I mean Aronow, is one of the few names that transcends boat racing. Way before he ever built his first Formula, Donzi or Cigarette, the handsome, solidly built, 6 foot 3 son of Russian Jewish immigrants from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, made a name for himself serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, competing as a three-letterman athlete at Brooklyn College and amassing a fortune as a New Jersey housebuilder. In his early thirties, flush with cash and seemingly in full command of his destiny, he followed his passion—fast boats—to Miami, where his macho antics quickly became a staple on and off the powerboat racing circuit. He jetted around the world with monarchs and millionaires, holding close ties to both sides of the law, including Vice President George H.W. Bush and mobster Meyer Lansky.
His deep-V and catamaran hull designs put the industrial, weed-choked NE 188th Street—popularized as “Thunderboat Row”—on the map. But it also attracted cocaine cowboys looking for fast, elusive boats to outrun the Coast Guard. Aronow didn’t shy away from the illicit attention, and clients were said to pay for Cigarettes with cash-filled suitcases, while requesting design briefs that called for secret compartments or hollowed-out hulls. His policy—don’t ask, don’t tell—allowed him to fulfill contracts with both sides, selling Blue Thunder catamarans to the U.S. Customs Services and DEA.
That is, until it all came crashing down. On February 3rd, 1987, Aronow was murdered in his car in a gangland-style killing. He was 59. In Speed Kills, before he’s viciously gunned down in his white Mercedes by a driver in a dark Lincoln Continental, Aronow’s life is threatened by a befuddled henchman played by Tom Sizemore (in what must be a low point for the actor).
After his death, rumors and suspicions began to swirl. There was a mystery man who had stopped by Aronow’s office and acted strangely right before the ambush. There were rumors of a jealous husband. (Aronow had been called a “high-performance ladies’ man,” by the Miami Herald.) Ben Kramer, a rival powerboat racer and marijuana smuggler had been allegedly two-timed by Aronow in a business deal leading up to the murder. The broad daylight assassination also had strong whiffs of Colombian cartel involvement. Was Aronow killed for being an informant? For a business deal gone wrong? Or had past dealings with the city’s shady underbelly finally caught up to him?
In 1995, South Florida hitman Robert ‘Bobby’ Young, already serving life for another gangland killing, pleaded no contest to a second-degree charge in the Aronow murder. His co-defendant, Ben Kramer, was also found guilty and sentenced to 19 years on top of a life term for drug smuggling. It was only until 2009—shortly before he passed away in prison—that Young supposedly admitted to the killing. However, Young’s description—blue eyes, dark-blond hair—never matched a composite drawing of the driver made from eyewitness accounts: a white man with a tanned complexion, a day or two’s growth of whiskers and wavy brown hair. And to this day, Kramer maintains his innocence.
Will we one day see a Netflix or Amazon Prime series that gives the Don Aronow/Thunderboat Row story the production it deserves? I hope so. It’s certainly rife for the telling. But the truth might be stranger, and more interesting, than fiction: including accounts of Aronow barging into a formal banquet in Jamaica on horseback, and Kramer orchestrating a daredevil, El Chapo-like helicopter escape from prison—only to snag on a barbed-wire fence and crash. Not to mention the tons of archival footage of boat racing that is (mercifully) used in Speed Kills. (The CGI, especially in a scene reminiscent of The Perfect Storm, leaves a lot to be desired.) Just please, powers-that-be, keep Travolta and his lame hairpiece(s) away from it. Did you see what he did to Gotti? Of course you didn’t.