There’s more than a little early Quentin Tarantino in Criminal Activities, the directorial debut from well-known San Antonio character actor Jackie Earle Haley. From the smart, dark humor about a group of guys looking for an easy score to the spasms of blood-splattering violence, it owes a hat tip to the likes of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Heck, John Travolta even has a starring role.
But Criminal Activities is more than mere genuflection. It’s a twisty, kinetic and satisfying thriller with a didn’t-see-that-coming climax.
Four former high-school classmates reunite at the funeral of a mutual friend. There’s Zach (Michael Pitt), a financial-industry up-and-comer with a hot girlfriend. On the other end of the spectrum is Warren (Christopher Abbott), not long into sobriety, who won’t have much left in his bank account once his rent check clears. Straight-arrow Bryce (Rob Brown) seems to fall somewhere in the middle. Finally, there’s Noah (Dan Stevens), the once-nerdy kid they all picked on in school whose wealthy dad recently died.
Bryce casually mentions he has an insider friend who recommends buying loads of shares of a new start-up that is on the verge of a huge breakthrough. Get in on the ground floor and they could be millionaires. Noah says he can easily get the money for the investment.
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Trouble comes when it turns out the company’s a fraud, the stock tanks and Noah didn’t front his own cash but borrowed it from a local mobster, Eddie (a funny Travolta). To wipe out the debt, Eddie demands they kidnap and hold Marques (a wonderful Edi Gathegi), a local hood whom Eddie claims is in on the kidnapping of his niece.
Of course, nothing goes as planned. Working from a script by the late Robert Lowell, Haley turns the foursome’s brush with criminality into a very long, dark night of the soul that is equal parts horrifying and humorous.
Criminal Activities is the latest in the line of satisfying, low-budget contemporary noir (The Gift, The Guest, The Suicide Theory) that offers an alternative to the car-chase thrillers that Hollywood churns out. Tarantino probably should be proud.
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Director: Jackie Earle Haley
Cast: John Travolta, Dan Stevens, Michael Pitt
Rated: Unrated (bloody violence, strong language, sex)
Running time: 93 min.