Saturday, November 21, 2015


(US - 2015)

Directed by Jackie Earle Haley. Written by Robert Lowell. Cast: Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, John Travolta, Jackie Earle Haley, Christopher Abbott, Rob Brown, Edi Gathegi, Travis Aaron Wade, Alan B. Jones, Tyrone Jenkins, Chris Haley, Morgan Wolk. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Or, GET SHORTY III: THINGS FOR SUICIDE KINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE KEYSER SOZE FOR 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY. As generic as its title, the Cleveland-shot straight-to-VOD dumpjob CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES plays like any number of post-Tarantino/post-USUAL SUSPECTS-meets-Elmore Leonard knockoffs that cluttered the new release shelves of video stores in the latter half of the 1990s. Former Bad News Bear Kelly Leak-turned-LITTLE CHILDREN Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley, whose unexpected late '00s renaissance led to his being cast as Rorschach in WATCHMEN and as Freddy Krueger in the awful NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot, makes his directorial debut here, and it's mostly by-the-numbers and undistinguished. The script is credited to Robert Lowell, who may or may not be the poet who died in 1977 (IMDb and several reviews seem to think it is, and that Haley extensively rewrote it) and has familiar situations and even more familiar dialogue from several noir thrillers of two decades ago. Less than five minutes in, and one of David Della Rocco's more memorable lines in THE BOONDOCK SAINTS is repeated almost word-for-word, and much later, a traumatized character proclaims "I'm pretty fuckin' far from OK," just like Ving Rhames' Marcellus Wallace did in PULP FICTION. But in CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES (shouldn't that be the title of a bad CBS police procedural?), it doesn't come off as a winking homage. It comes off as stale and lazy. Haley is a terrific character actor, but he doesn't come close to capturing the style and the flow of Tarantino. The script sounds like Haley cobbled it together after binge-watching a bunch of '90s Tarantino imitators and like most of those films (it really plays like a ripoff of a ripoff), CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES makes a lot of noise but it's all pretend and posturing, and seems a little too pleased with itself.

Getting drinks after the funeral of their buddy Matthew (Chris Haley, the director's son), who was run over by a bus, longtime friends Zach (Michael Pitt)--now a douchebag, coke-snorting investment broker with a trophy fiancee (Morgan Wolk) he suspects is cheating on him (foreshadowing alert!)--Bryce (Rob Brown), and recovering alcoholic Warren (Christopher Abbott) are joined by outcast and frequent bullying target Noah (Dan Stevens of THE GUEST). Noah is now a filthy rich real estate mogul, and in the course of their conversation, Bryce mentions he has a buddy who's got a hot tip on investing in a lucrative new pharmaceutical startup. After a month, the stock in the company is worthless following an SEC bust, and the four guys are out the $200,000 Noah borrowed from a benefactor who turns out to be Cleveland mob kingpin Eddie Lovato (John Travolta, wearing a shiny, helmet-like Big Boy wig). Lovato's got all of them on the hook for the investment plus interest, demanding $400,000 but offering them a clean slate if they kidnap Marques Flemmings (Edi Gathegi), whose brother is holding Lovato's niece for ransom and whose uncle is Demetrius Flemmings (Tyrone Jenkins), a top rival of Lovato's. Of course, putting four bickering incompetents in charge of an abduction never works out well, and of course the pragmatic Marques (Gathegi is the best thing in the movie) senses their weaknesses, manipulates them and attempts to turn them against one another, leading to twists, turns, buried secrets being revealed, and lots of dialogue that goes as follows:

  • Marques: "Shut the fuck up!"
  • Warren: "No, you shut the fuck up!"
  • Noah: "SHUT. THE FUCK. UP!"
  • Zach and Bryce: "SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

The major plot twists are telegraphed pretty hard throughout, to the point where it becomes painfully obvious who's not who he says is, though the big reveal of why this person has gone to the lengths he's gone has a surprising degree of chutzpah and an admirable "Whoa...what?" factor to it. The finale and Gathegi's performance give CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES a big boost, and Travolta and Haley (who plays Lovato's chief flunky) seem to be having a good time. Travolta coasts through in a supporting role, probably as a favor for his buddy Haley, and gets to resurrect some of his Vincent Vega and Chili Palmer schtick, holding court with long-winded speeches (everybody in this movie has multiple long-winded speeches) on everything from economics to Macbeth to how much he hates drinking kale shakes. It's all cut from the same cloth as "Royale with Cheese," and like most of its '90s influences, there's some unexpected, darkly-comedic accidental death (like Marvin getting shot in the face because of a bump in the road in PULP FICTION). CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES is shamelessly derivative at times, and you really don't care at all about the four main characters, especially Pitt's obnoxious Zach, who seems like nearly every other obnoxious Michael Pitt character (if you want to see Pitt in a better mob movie, check out the little-seen and much more entertaining ROB THE MOB) but Stevens' portrayal of nebbishy dweeb Noah seems to be channeling a young Woody Allen at times. Except for the finale where it tries far too late to find its own voice, CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES is a minor and mostly forgettable film for Travolta completists and people who can't get enough of dated Tarantino ripoffs that instantly play like relics found frozen in ice after 20 years and just now thawed for viewing.

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