My, my, my, it is always interesting to watch established actor leave their comfortable circumstances and explore other areas. I imagine it is easy to be complacent with your work and very difficult to find roles that continuously challenge you, so why not seek out new titles? In the case of Criminal Activities, the actor I am referring to is Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), who makes his director debut with this tale about four men who end up way over their heads. In my experience, actors either hit or miss when they step into the big chair; you can either end up with soul-crushing reviews or an Academy Award. Although this film is unlikely to reach such meteoric heights, I would still call it a success by a large margin.
Four high school friends (Michael Pitt, Rob Brown, Chris Abbott, and Dan Stevens) reunite at a funeral following the tragic death of another one. It is clear that these four have not spoken for some time and are at different junctures in their lives but decide to spend some time together to relive old memories and catch up. In the midst of their reminiscing, one of them mentions some inside information overheard regarding a breakthrough a company has made that is about to quadruple the value of their stock. Eager to invest and reap the benefits, however short on the parcel, the group unknowingly borrows the money from let’s call it a less than accredited source (i.e. the mob).
Misfortune strikes when the stock tanks due to an ongoing federal investigation into the company, and all the money is lost. With no means to pay back what they owe, the group finds themselves in front of mob boss Eddie Lovato (John Travolta). Sympathetic to their plight, and in need of a resolution for a problem that he is having, he offers them a compromise: abduct a high ranking member (Edi Gathegi) of a rival crime syndicate and deliver him to them, and he will wipe the slate clean. Initially the four categorically refuse the offer, but as we all know, that is not usually an option when you are in deep to the mob. Faced with death or felony kidnapping, you can imagine which they choose.
The abduction is successful despite a few funny misgivings, and now it is a waiting game for the team. As the hours tick by, the group realizes more and more how in over their heads they are as the prisoners gets inside their heads, breaking the already crumbling dynamic.
The tagline for this film reads: “Leave the crime to the criminals.” That is a most apt description for this story in my opinion. I’ve seen many a kidnapping story in my time, but this may have been one of the most comical tales for me. Naturally I get that when you think kidnapping, that is not the first thing that comes to mind; however, in this case, I mean that in a good way. Haley manages to create a group dynamic that breeds humor despite the mounting pressure and severity of the situation that the four find themselves in. That accompanied by a stellar cast of familiar faces is a recipe for success.
When it comes to individual performance, eyes must first go to the up and coming Mr. Dan Stevens (The Guest) who I’ve been seeing more and more of in recent years, and no matter the performance he manages to fit his role like a glove, and here is no different. As the resident outcast for the group, he stammers when he needs to and does things that quickly display him as the weak link of the group. Most were probably expecting me to award top performance to Travolta; however, his role is more of a cameo in my opinion; he is not the main focal point despite having adequate screen time. Haley, who probably occupies equal screen time as Travolta, is a great source of comic relief as the mob’s enforcer. His stature does not convey him as the intimidating type; however, if we remember anything from his days on Human Target, he is not to be underestimated.
Criminal Activities features a plot twist that completely pulled the rug out from under me. It is rare that I can say that about any movie. In fact I believe I can count on one hand how many films have done that and still have fingers left over, but I am pleased to say that it happened here. I won’t give away the big surprise, but trust me, when you watch it, it is likely to catch you off guard too, and you will love every minute of it.
Criminal Activities is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. Overall picture quality is not likely to amaze you; however, the clear, crisp picture is above average in my opinion. Black levels are rich with good shadow definition. Predominantly interiorly located, the few daylight shots are mildly harsh, most notably during the pub sequence in regard to the light emanating from the window.
Not much call for surround sound with this dialog-centric film, I must say. The being said, what the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track lacks in immersive experience is compensated for in regard to well-balanced dialog and soundtrack. Granted, much of the audio originates from the front speakers, and I did not pick up much in regards to ambient noise; the score complements the overall pacing of the film extremely well without ever overpowering the other aspects of the film. I suspect the audio would have played great with action sequences; however, there are only a handful of those in the film, and they did not last long enough for a lasting impression.
Deleted Scenes: (02:09) One scene, possibly two, that would have easily worked into the film if not for what I suspect was a need to shorten the runtime. However, I will say the possible secondary scene would have likely presented a continuity error, so it may have been best to exclude it.
Cast Interviews: (08:32) A non-interactive interview with director Jackie Earle Haley and John Travolta from a press junket about the film where they describe what drew them to the film. A good addition, but nothing that you can’t live without seeing.
This without a doubt is one of the best films I have seen this year. I know that might not seem like a big deal, since we are only about two months into the year; however, I would even put this one up against all the films I saw last year as well. More than deserving of a wider release if you ask me; I highly recommend watching this. Not a kids’ movie, however. If you enjoy thrillers with twist that you probably won’t see coming, see this today.