Criminal Activities – New Release Review

Criminal ActivitiesWe take a look at Jackie Earle Haley’ directorial debut…

When four old school friends get together to shoot the breeze after an old former classmate’s funeral, one of them pipes up about how a friend has some shares that are a little bit dodgy, but they’re not too dodgy, and he’s looking to offload them on the cheap even though in just a month or so they’re going to skyrocket, and next thing you know the friends have all agreed to chip in and take the whole load off his hands. Since this is a movie, you’ve probably already guessed that they’ve borrowed mob money to buy the shares, which is foolhardy of them, though you can probably forgive them for not feeling the awesome fear the mob is supposed to inspire when their representative is John Travolta, who’s just a teddy bear really. Anyway, big surprise, the shares are worse than worthless, and now to make things up to Travolta, the four friends have to embark on the kidnapping-and-torture trip of a lifetime, in which secrets will be revealed, cherished memories will be formed, and ice cream will be eaten.

I decided to give this film a look on the grounds that it’s the directorial debut of Jackie Earle Haley, who was really very fine as a pædophile in Little Children, magnificent as an unmasked Rorschach in Watchmen, and even managed to acquit himself well as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, against the odds considering how beloved Robert Englund was in the rôle. He’s even the highlight of this picture as a tiny “heavy” named Gerry. And he’s not actually a stranger to directing, despite this being his first feature, having spent a good decade doing commercials when the acting work unaccountably dried up. His style here has some of the flashy shallowness that tends to give away those directors who got their training in commercials or in music videos; there is the feeling that he doesn’t, perhaps, quite mean it. On the one hand, this can be a distraction with a script that largely relies on character-driven dialogue in limited settings; the director’s duty here should be to ground the camera with confidence and coax the best work from his actors. On the other hand, action sequences are often handled with flair, and the film can be unexpectedly visually exciting.

On yet another hand, if the direction suffers occasionally from flippancy, it may be unfair to blame the director too quickly. First-time writer Robert Lowell’s script may borrow its ending from The Usual Suspects, but it borrows absolutely everything else from Tarantino, with small-talking gangsters, long and sometimes pointless narrative asides, quotations from Proust and Shakespeare – Travolta, explaining to an audience unaccountably unfamiliar with Macbeth, gets very muddled trying to relate Macduff, from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, back to whatever point he was making – and much casual violence. But the picture can’t seem to quite find the proper cheerily nihilistic tone that comes off so effortlessly in early QT flicks, and as a result often feels nasty: it’s difficult to blend high-impact, real-life violence with its real-life consequences, with cartoonish bloody slapstick; Tarantino himself ran into the same problem on Django Unchained, and largely recovered from it on The Hateful Eight. What we’re left with is a film which can’t decide if its tongue is in its cheek or if its teeth are gritted, and it’s hard to say much when you’re biting your tongue.

Criminal Activities is released today (7th March) on DVD, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!


  1. Great write up! I would watch this purely for Stevens. Okay, and Pitt…

    1. Thanks! But you really should watch it for Haley.

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