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John Travolta is fun to watch. Let’s get that out of the way. He steadfastly refuses to accept that time is a thing and has affect on all things living or not, continuing on as if he were convinced that it is still 1994. My definition of “fun” in the previous sentence is undeniably vague at best, as he is barely more than a parody, but I’m certain he knows that. He’s never been one to shy away from chewing up every scene he’s been in. Subtle is not his thing. Nothing different here, though his appearance is becoming cause for concern. Remember Giglio Joe (Jude Law) in Steven Spielberg’s awkward A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)? He was a robot that very nearly resembled a human male. You get my point.
Criminal Activities opens with a priest at a funeral quoting Marcel Proust: “We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast but when we say this, we imagine that hour to take place in an obscure and distant future.” It’s a strong opening and for a few minutes, as the camera pans over a small congregation of silently-listening mourners, there is a hint that this might have potential. After a jump-cut to a couple vigorously having sex in a Range Rover in the parking lot, we see three of these men in a diner reminiscing about their fallen friend. They are Zach (Michael Pitt), Margues (Edi Gathegi) and Warren (Christopher Abbott). In walks Noah (Dan Stevens) with whom they don’t seem particularly happy to see. We learn they were all in high school and that for each, time has served them differently. Over a joint, they talk and discover that among them, they have insider information about an upcoming pharmaceutical that could net them a fortune. Problem is, they need two-hundred thousand dollars to get in on the scheme. Noah, wanting in with the gang, claims he can get the money. Deal set.
A month later, the CEO of the drug company is publicly arrested and the stock is frozen, preventing the four men from collecting on their investment. Zach, on hearing the news, is in a panic, but worse, when he leaves work, is kidnapped and stuffed in a trunk. After a bit of driving, the car stops and he’s introduced to Gerry (Jackie Earle Haley), who, he says, works for a man that wants his money back, and since he knows Zach won’t be getting that money, must meet the boss. That boss is of course, Travolta, playing a mobster by the name of Eddie. Eddie is super kind, drinks kale-shakes and even apologizes for being late for their appointment the following day. That’s all pretense of course. He’s actually a rather irritable guy, and because he’s with the mob, the two-hundred thousand dollars is now double that. Knowing the boys can’t come up with that kind of money, he offers them a deal. It turns out he has a niece who also has been kidnapped because his sister is married to a cocaine addict and other reasons. It’s not important. What is, is that he wants the boys to kidnap the kidnapper’s brother and use him for a swap.
Directed by Jackie Earle Haley, Criminal Activities (a title that sounds like one of those fake names studios use when shipping a blockbuster to theater) is a poorly made, directed, and acted film that, like Travolta, seems 20 years out of place, late to the Quentin Tarantino coattail’s party. The story is convoluted at best but so unconvincingly presented, it’s not only confusing, it’s not interesting. Haley seems to be working off a Cliff Notes version of a How-To book on directing movies, blatantly ripping off Tarantino, including a shot from inside a car trunk that might as well be a deleted scene from Reservoir Dogs. But even this is an easy criticism. Haley’s certainly not the first. It’s much more than the attempts at homage, a word I’ll use loosely here. The production is generic and Haley and the script offer nothing imaginative. For example, at one point, a character is being harassed by four others in a multi-tiered parking garage who, naturally, hang him over the railing by his legs, a setup that in this post-Pulp Fiction world requires the one holding the legs to slip. When he does, and the victim plummets to his death, the man turns and says, “My bad.” It’s not witty, it’s boring. And instead of coming of fun or clever, is pretentious and smarmy.
The film has a student project feel to it with stilted action, unconvincing dialogue and some peculiar performances, especially from Pitt and Stevens. Stevens is miscast and never garners any sympathy, coming off like he memorized his lines moments before the camera rolled (actually there are entire scenes where I’m betting Haley just told the actors to improvise). Pitt however, is the worse offender, and that’s saying a lot considering he shares the screen with Travolta. At least Travolta does it with some style. Pitt comes off like he’s in rehearsal for his neighborhood drama club, and worse, like he was roped into by a friend he owes a favor. Predictable, saved only by another over-the-top John Travolta, Criminal Activities will rightly be lost in the shuffle of a hundred others like it. Avoid.