Why do we allow John Travolta to play anything other than villains anymore? Even when he’s in terrible movies he’s either electrifying (Dominic Sena’s Swordfish ) or unintentionally hilarious (Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth ). Perhaps it’s his odd manner of perfectly teetering between grinning charisma and sociopathic lunacy. Regardless, he’s compulsively watchable as a villain. As such, he’s one of the two best parts of Criminal Activities, the directorial debut of actor Jackie Earle Haley, best known for his performance as Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) and his Academy Award-nominated turn in Todd Field’s Little Children (2006). In it Travolta plays “Eddie,” a deceptively amiable mobster who shanghais four friends into a kidnapping after they lose $400,000 of his money in an investment gone sour. His ultimatum: kidnap Marques Flemmings (Edi Gathegi) and keep him locked away for twenty-four hours while he clears up a “business matter” with his brother Tyrone, a powerful rival gangster.
Seemingly eager to match the dialogue-based plot digressions characteristic of Quentin Tarantino, the majority of Criminal Activities takes place in the safe-house where the four hapless criminals argue, bicker, and shoot the sh!t with one another while waiting for the clock to run out while outside forces—Eddie’s mob, Tyrone’s mob, and the Feds—desperately run around trying to figure out what’s going on. Here we find the second best part of the film: Haley’s supporting role as Gerry, Eddie’s enforcer. In addition to being both hysterical and chilling, he provides the film’s very best rambling monologue—a round-about story about how he almost got killed by a junkie as a child, featuring a pay-off so unexpected and ingenious that it would make the aforementioned Tarantino green with envy.
I almost wish that the film would have centered on Travolta and Haley’s characters since the plot threads involving the four friends get wrapped up in about half-a-dozen The Usual Suspects wannabe twists. Almost the entirety of the last five minutes are a prolonged montage of twist after twist after twist until you can barely keep track of what’s going on anymore. I’ve long had issue with films that try too hard for twist endings—see my review of Nadeem Soumah’s 6 Ways to Die (2015). But whereas the twist ending in 6 Ways to Die was stupid and preposterous, the twists in Criminal Activities could have worked if they had perhaps been spread out more evenly throughout the third act instead of in the last few minutes.