‘Criminal’ Third-Act Twists Sink Thriller

The thriller, in select theaters and VOD Nov. 20, traffics in the stylish mayhem Tarantino perfected in “True Romance” and “Reservoir Dogs.” What starts as Tarantino-lite trips over its lofty ambitions. Tarantino, even at most self-indulgent, wouldn’t attempt the third act twists “Activities” unleashes.

Criminal Activities: OFFICIAL TRAILER
Four old pals think they’ve lucked into a classic, albeit unethical, get rich quick scheme. Instead, they wind up owing $400,000 to a loan shark named Eddie (John Travolta) who offers them a way out of their predicament.

If the friends will kidnap, and keep safe, a local hoodlum (Edi Gathegi) Eddie will forgive their debt. Only they don’t know the first thing about criminal mischief. And it shows.

The film’s greatest asset is the overmatched quartet, well played by Michael Pitts, Dan Stevens, Rob Brown and Christopher Abbott. They’re accidental crooks, and they behave accordingly. They even share their real names to their kidnap victim. Haven’t they ever heard of code names? That leads to a few darkly comic morsels, giving the story a freshness the film’s ultra-violence rarely suggests.

Let’s all collectively thank Travolta for dialing down the villainous tics he brought to “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” His Eddie is a charmer who insists friends and strangers alike call him by his first name. A throwaway subplot involving his brand of “relationship counseling” gives Eddie a welcome dash of humanity.

Actor/director Jackie Earle Haley

Can we avoid talking about the third act a little longer? Oh, well, here goes.

Like too many 21st century thrillers, “Criminal Activities” wants to show off its ingenious storytelling chops. Only it requires flashbacks and reams of exposition just when the story’s screws should be tightening.

What was once a tight, character driven thriller becomes bloated and ordinary.

Jackie Earle Haley, making his directorial debut, shows real promise with “Criminal Activities.” The banter between the friends registers as authentic, and the mood nicely shifts between black comedy and bloodletting. Few directors could pull off the screenplay’s excess, leaving his debut as checkered at best.

The film does deliver a continuity error for the ages. A major character’s blackened eye goes from a bloody bruise to a slit out of a “Rocky” fight sequence. It’s almost worth the VOD

DID YOU KNOW: Jackie Earle Haley’s screen comeback began when director Steve Zaillian and Sean Penn, remembering his many roles as a child actor, cast him as Sugar Boy in the 2006 film “All the King’ s Men.”

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