Blu-ray Review: Criminal Activities

By , Contributor
Don't let its direct-to-video status put you off: Criminal Activities, the directorial debut of Academy Award-nominated actor Jackie Earle Haley, is a retro (think mid-'90s!) blast of energetic verbosity. It's a crime thriller that takes its characters—and the things they say—seriously. Credited to Robert Lowell (a writer who died in 1977) and apparently re-worked by Haley (uncredited), the decades-old screenplay is zestfully funny. Aside from the obvious fact that supporting player John Travolta looks older here than he did in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty, Haley's film could've practically been released 'as is' in 1996. Here's what's vitally important: just when you think you've got this movie's number, it unpacks a series of killer plot turns. It's available on February 16, 2016.

Basically, Criminal Activities finds a quartet of young(ish) friends reuniting at the funeral of a friend who died unexpectedly. To be more specific, the quartet is actually three close friends—Zach (Michael Pitts), Bryce (Rob Brown), and Warren (Christopher Abbott)—and an awkward geek who was friends with them during their school days. That would be Noah (Dan Stevens), blissfully unaware of his former school mates' mockery. As they reminisce about their departed friend, they hatch a plan to invest heavily in a supposedly "can't miss" stock. Unfortunately for them, the stock goes south. Noah's source for capital, initially thought (by the other three) to be an inheritance, was actually a mob boss named Eddie (John Travolta). Maybe that sounds predictable? It's not. Haley has more than a few neat tricks up his sleeve.
criminal activities BD (296x380).jpg As Eddie lays out the terms by which the quartet of desperate friends can repay their debt (the initial $200,000 is now doubled), the fun lies in the inventive performances and colorful dialogue. Viewers who survived the glut of Tarantino-styled, darkly-comic crime thrillers in the years after Pulp Fiction took the film industry by storm will recognize many familiar elements. Travolta doesn't have a ton of screen time, but he makes the most of it with a loose, likable supporting turn. Dan Stevens (The Guest, TV's Downton Abbey) digs deep to add complexity to the gawky Noah, often the butt of his "friends" jokes. Also leaving an strong impression is Edi Gathegi as Marques, the man Eddie insists his debtors locate, apprehend, and hold for him. Eddie and his goon Gerry (director Haley, doing double duty as supporting cast member) will take care of Marques, but Gathegi (benefited by some incisive monologues) makes sure he's no hapless, helpless hostage.

Criminal Activities was greeted with some wildly mixed reviews upon release, but I have to recommend it to fans of gritty, funny, twisty crime capers. Image's Blu-ray looks and sounds great (DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack), with the feature supplemented by some deleted scenes and a short interview with Travolta and Haley. It would be damning with faint praise to say Criminal Activites is "good for a direct-to-video movie." This is one I'll return to and I believe quite a few viewers will feel the same way. Too bad the title is so generic, since the movie has "cult favorite" written all over it. Hopefully it discovers the audience it deserves.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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