Jackie Earle Haley’s Criminal Activities is a throwback to the post-Tarantino imitations that flourished in the 1990s in the wake of Pulp Fiction’s success. The films, requisitely and often desperately obsessed with the f-word, are inhabited by powerful alpha characters who prattle on with varying degrees of eloquence about subjects that have ironically little to do with the unpleasant tasks directly before them, which usually involve the business of intimidating weaker characters. And their chronologically pretzel-twisted narratives are governed by a self-consciously sustained aura of detachment that suggests a feeling of superiority, on the part of the filmmakers, to formula elements of genre writing, of which they nevertheless enjoy the benefits.
Criminal Activities usually manages to adhere to these guidelines simultaneously, or at least alternatingly. For instance, when John Travolta’s mobster, Eddie, forces a quartet of entitled patsies to kidnap a prominent drug dealer, Marquis (Edi Gathegi), he doesn’t do anything as banal as threatening to kill them should they fail to comply. Eddie lectures the young men instead on the seven principles of economics and the quantum 10; in other words, he waxes rhapsodic on the sort of things that allow a young male screenwriter to show his cleverness off to the audience and to hopeful producers of future projects. When police later question Eddie about the carnage he’s orchestrated, he laboriously lectures them on Macbeth, rather than clarifying the particulars of a criminal conspiracy that’s eventually revealed to have quite a few wrinkles, in the tradition of the post-Tarantino crime thriller’s most esteemed laureate, The Usual Suspects.
The actors chew the lurid, shopworn material up to bits, savoring it like a Royale with cheese.
Marquis is similarly loquacious. When verbally grappling with his kidnappers, he doesn’t tell them to “fuck off,” as many might in such a predicament. After all, any thug could do that. Marquis directs his tormenters’ attention to his pistol, which sports a handle fashioned from Tahitian pearl (the sort of “quirky” detail that Tarantino impressionists love), eventually seguing into a more poetic means of informing them that they’re not long for this Earth. Along the way, Marquis has a pretty good bit about the “shitter” being sacred.
The film’s more enjoyable than it has any right to be, considering the obnoxiousness of most Tarantino imitators, particularly Suicide Kings, which features a similar mafia-kidnapping plot. Taking a cue from Guy Ritchie, Haley stages the elaborate killings and double-crossings as screwball throwaways, defiantly resisting the nihilistic self-importance that plagues this subgenre. Assisting Haley is Robert Lowell’s derivative but often legitimately funny script and the impressive cast, which includes Christopher Abbott, Dan Stevens, Rob Brown, Michael Pitt, and Haley himself, in addition to the amusing Travolta and superb Gathegi. Criminal Activities suggests a violent sketch show that one watches for the talented performers, who have the showmanship to chew the lurid, shopworn material up to bits, savoring it like a Royale with cheese.