'Criminal Activities' Is Criminally Mediocre

After landing an Academy Award nomination for his impressive role as a registered sex offender in director Todd Field’s underappreciated 2006 drama Little Children, actor Jackie Earle Haley was given the opportunity to work with a handful of filmmakers that might make anyone thinking about trying their hand at directing feel a bit intimidated.

From Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg to Tim Burton, Haley has been on the sets of some big names in Hollywood. Haley, however, doesn’t seem to be someone who shies away from a challenge. He jumps into the director’s chair with his first film Criminal Activities, a conventional and clichéd crime drama that borrows heavily from movies that have come before, but still manages to create a few darkly funny moments before collapsing in a convoluted final act.

In Criminal Activities, a group of former high school classmates — Noah (Dan Stevens), Zach (Michael Pitt), Warren (Christopher Abbott) and Bryce (Rob Brown) — reunite at the funeral of a mutual friend where they learn about an insider tip on the stock market that could make them all rich. When the stock crashes (surprise, surprise), the boys find themselves $400,000 in debt to a mob boss (John Travolta) who says he’ll wipe the slate clean if they kidnap the brother of a guy who kidnapped his niece so they can exchange hostages.

The screenplay piles it on with extra storylines, all of which give no nuance to the characters or make any of the conflict more exciting or original. If anything, adding components like a black crime syndicate, a double-crossing informant, a private investigator, a cheating fiancée and an abusive husband only dilute the most noteworthy aspect of the film — the four men out of their element and at the center of this familiar narrative. Giving their relationships more substance would’ve made the scenarios feel like there was more at stake.

Instead, Criminal Activities is more concerned about hitting plot points that will ultimately lead to ridiculous twists and turns and to scenes reminiscent of scores of Quentin Tarantino copycat films like Suicide Kings and Boondock Saints and even Tarantino’s own flicks. Notice the slow pan around a table à la Reservoir Dogs done a million times before, or the lifted dialogue from Pulp Fiction (“I’m far from fucking OK”), among other examples. Haley’s next calling in the industry might very well be more directing, but he’ll have to find a script that is far less formulaic to make a lasting impression. 

Criminal Activities (NR) 94 min

Dir. Jackie Earle Haley; writ. Robert Lowell; feat. John Travolta, Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, Jackie Earle Haley, Christopher Abbott, Edi Gathegi, Rob Brown

Available on VOD Fri, Nov. 20

One in the Can

It didn’t get a full run at local theaters, but Oscar nominee and San Antonio resident Jackie Earle Haley hopes audiences will seek out his directorial debut Criminal Activities, which was released last Friday on VOD. The Current recently caught up with Haley, 54, about his new crime thriller.

What drew you to this script?
I don’t think it’s a movie that takes itself too serious. It’s a hyper-reality and you just go with it. It’s a fun ride. It’s dark at times, serious at times and quite funny at times. What drew me to it was the marvelous script. It was an entertaining piece that was very well crafted.

Talk about casting and how you landed on some of these actors.
First, I started to get familiar with all the actors of that age group. I did a lot of Skype calls. When I saw Michael Pitt it was clear he’d be really good in the flick. The first guy we felt we needed to get cast was the character played by John Travolta. John heard I was directing my first movie. There was something about it that interested him enough to read the script. He felt comfortable that I knew what I was doing and that I had a clear vision. He called his manager and said, “I’m in.”

Did his involvement help things move forward?
Once John was on board, it helped influence other actors to want to check it out and be a part of it. I know as an actor it’s always important to me when I’m considering taking on a part to see who is involved — the actors, the director, the screenwriter. You look at all those things.

Is it OK when people compare this film to the work of other directors like Tarantino?
I think it feels a little Tarantino-esque because of the writing, not because of me. It was something John and I talked about. We just came to the conclusion that a lot of art borrows from other art. There are a few characters that sound a little Tarantino-esque and that’s cool. I don’t think it’s something you’ll see in every movie I do.

So, is directing something you’d like to try again?
Now that I have a full-length feature I can show people, I definitely want to do more directing. I’m just as passionate about this as I am about acting. I would love to do a lot more of both.

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