Criminal Activities starts at a funeral. There, stock broker Zach (Michael Pitt) runs into his old high school buddies Noah (Dan Stevens), Warren (Christopher Abbott) and Bryce (Rob Brown). Noah clues them in on a possible moneymaking opportunity involving insider knowledge on a pharmaceutical company on the verge of a breakthrough. The four agree to put up two hundred thousand dollars in total to get in on the scheme. And then that company goes other, leaving everyone in the lurch. And it turns out that Noah borrowed the money they used from the mob. Gangster Eddie (John Travolta) offers them a way out of the debt: the four need to help him kidnap another gangster.
The obvious influence here is Tarantino. Or to be more accurate, Tarantino’s imitators. There is just no getting around how Criminal Activities feels like a movie of a certain time, the era post-Pulp Fiction that saw a wave of talky gangster films that alternated between quirk and violence. Like those films, Criminal Activities believes itself to be clever, its pretensions made clear in the quoting of Proust and Shakespeare. But there is really no substance behind it. Like the movies it imitates, it is destined to be forgotten.
The film is mainly about four guys stuck in a room with the guy they kidnapped. That’s kind of a funny idea, and there are moments when the film seems to recognize this. There is some energy to the scenes where the kidnap victim Marques (Edi Gathegi) tries to talk his kidnappers into letting him go. He threatens them, reasons with them, and tries to pay them off. Gathegi is excellent in this role, making it clear in every moment that he’s on screen that he’s actually in control, even though he’s the one that’s being restrained.
But these conversations don’t end up meaning much, because there isn’t a whole lot on the other side of the scenes. The four main characters are really thinly drawn, and the movie mainly depicts the various conflicts between them as a series of screaming matches. They never really seem to reckon with the situation they’re in, instead more concerned about external matters that seem to pale in comparison to the gravity that they’re already facing. The acting is still generally pretty good, but the writing just doesn’t keep up.
And as the film moves into its final minutes, it becomes clear why the writing is so static. The story is actually built around a major twist, and the script had to constructed to obscure major developments. The characters never get to deal with anything really meaty in their relationships, because the details had to reversal for the big reversal. No room is left for the characters to actually deal with the consequences. And when all is said and done, the twist isn’t really worth it. There isn’t enough investment to make the “shocking” revelations matter.
There are isolated moments of pleasure in Criminal Activities. Some of these conversations, though far from reaching the Tarantino level to which it aspires, are actually pretty entertaining. And these actors are clearly having fun, particular John Travolta. It is when you put these pieces together that the film reveals its weaknesses. Like so many films before it, Criminal Activities seems to only understand its inspiration at a really shallow level. It only wants the swagger, the pretension of being a “smart” violent film. But it doesn’t understand what smart is, the film tossing out references that don’t contribute to the larger idea, and careening towards a twist that isn’t as cool as it thinks it is.