“Criminal Activities” is yet another one of those “Clueless regular folks who get into deep criminal shit struggle to come out of the situation alive” dark comedies that were very popular during the post-Tarantino late ’90s. Examples like “Suicide Kings” and “Very Bad Things” are just two titles that come to mind after a maximum of five seconds of brainstorming. Right down to its generic title, “Criminal Activities” doesn’t add anything new to the formula, and you can probably predict every single one of its story beats, including the wholly unnecessary twist ending, but I had fun with it nevertheless.
This gruesome dark comedy is the feature directorial debut of Jackie Earl Haley, veteran portrayer of some of the creepiest characters from Hollywood’s last decade. Robert Lowell, the American poet who died in 1977, wrote the screenplay decades ago, and Haley updated it and changed the location from Detroit to Cleveland, while declining to be credited for his writing work. If Lowell’s screenplay was indeed kept intact, it’s hard to figure out how to approach the material.
This story template, as well as the graphic violence and the breezy dark humor, was fairly progressive for the ’70s. But since the screenplay was produced during the mid-2010s, after a horde of similar material roared past the cinematic landscape, leaving that well as dry as John Travolta’s line deliveries in the film, the whole affair has a worn out feel. That being said, Haley shows a lot of promise as a first-timer. His debut is infused with enough stylistic confidence, an effortless manic energy, natural-enough-for-the-genre performances, and some impressive modern noir cinematography, all of which should be enough to please fans of this sub-genre on a base level.
Why does the audience eat up this exact same story of a bunch of idiots gradually finding out just how much immoral and despicable behavior they can carry out when pushed to the limit by career criminals whose second nature is said behavior? Well, a majority of the general audience is not career criminals, so my guess is that every once in a while we’d like to find out how we would act if we were put into the kinds of situations that come off as usual daily annoyances to the characters in “Goodfellas” or “The Sopranos”.
Each of the protagonists, the regular Joes, usually represent a different archetype that mirrors distinct members of the target audience. That way, everyone can find a character in the story that they can identify with. “Criminal Activities” provides no exception to this rule, as we get: Zach (Michael Pitt), the ambitious Wall Street douchebag; Warren (Christopher Abbott), the down-to-earth blue-collar fellow; Bryce (Rob Brown), the no-nonsense one of the bunch; and Noah (Dan Stevens), the twitchy, overzealous nerd, who decides to invest $200,000 into a “foolproof” pharmaceutical company while getting high after their high school friend’s funeral. Unfortunately, the company’s stocks plummet, and our team of idiots end up owing $400,000 to Eddie (Travolta), a cheeky mobster with a heart of gold.
It’s not an original premise by any means, but Travolta has so much fun with it that it’s hard not to crack a smile. Since the guys obviously can’t pay, Eddie forces them to kidnap Marques (Edi Gathegi), a legendary mobster’s favorite nephew, as retaliation for his own kidnapped niece. The team is tasked with keeping Marques safe while Eddie finds his niece, and if everything goes as planned, the debt is erased. Of course, it goes without saying that pretty much nothing goes as planned.
One of the joys of “Criminal Activities” is observing the non-plot-related tangential sequences about the day-to-day world of Eddie and his two cool as cucumber goons (Jackie Earle Haley and Chris Hahn). Haley gives himself the best scene in the movie, a scene that perhaps not so surprisingly has nothing to do with the plot. As Haley’s character waxes poetic about the random absurdity of serendipity, he regales his partner with an incredible story about how he survived the clutches of a murderous drug dealer when he was a child. Thanks to its breezy tone regarding insane coincidences, this sequence could have easily been included with similar short stories that were told during the cold open of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” The scene’s hilarious button alone might be worth giving “Criminal Activities” a chance.
On our regular Joes’ end, things are a bit more predictable. As tensions rise while the quartet of fools try to figure out what to do with their captive, we get to check the typical list of convenient plot points, full of double-crosses, triple-crosses, teased double-crosses that turn out to be nothing, improbable triple-crosses that turn out to be unavoidable… All of it leads to a strong finale that forces the guys to face one of the harshest realities of criminal life. At least, it would have been a strong finale if the lame twist ending, complete with one of those quick-cut montage sequences that attempts to cram in a whole first act’s worth of information into five minutes, didn’t undermine the film’s theme of regular people getting caught up in a violent world. If you rent “Criminal Activities” on VOD, my recommendation is to stop the film at the 1 hour and 20 minute mark.
“Criminal Activities” in an unremarkable but solid genre exercise, one that shows off Jackie Earle Haley’s chops as a director. It’s boosted by suave DP work by Seamus Tierney, the reliable intensity of Michael Pitt, the ever-increasing range of Dan Stevens, and the genuine creep factor brought on by John Travolta. If you don’t expect much in terms of originality, there are some good times to be had here. [C+]