Title: Criminal Activities
Director: Jackie Earle Haley
Major Players: Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, John Travolta
Out Of Five: 2.5
Here’s a film with a generic title, the sort that could be attached to any crime movie under the sun. It’s almost as if the makers are deliberately underselling it so that it quietly slips under the radar.
Which might be just one of the reasons why Jackie Earle Haley’s Criminal Activities has gone straight to DVD in this country, after a limited release in the States and popping up in one or two European countries. The director’s name may not ring a bell, but his distinctive face most certainly will. He’s been around for decades as a supporting actor on TV and on the big screen until he had his moment in the spotlight – an Oscar nomination in 2006 for Little Children. Since then, he’s continued in smaller roles in the likes of Lincoln (2012), Shutter Island (2010) and the forthcoming Sundance sensation, Birth Of A Nation. But here he’s decided to stretch himself and invest all that experience in directing his first film.
Four friends are re-united when at the funeral of a fellow student. One of them reveals he’s had a tip about some stock that could make them a huge amount of money, but he doesn’t have the cash to do anything about it. But another knows how to get the readies, so the friends invest and soon find themselves high and dry when the company crashes. The money they used came from the mob and now they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Of course, Haley isn’t the first actor to move behind the camera. Some have been highly successful – Eastwood, Affleck, Allen: others have found it a more difficult transition – Brando, Laughton and, more latterly, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Haley, though, isn’t just the director here as he also takes a supporting role. So he’s set himself an even bigger challenge.
He clearly knows how to cast a movie. The young actors playing the four friends are more than decent: there’s Christopher Abbot, seen recently in James White, and Downton’s Dan Stevens among them. Plus he’s pulled in John Travolta, who looks like he’s come straight from a treatment at Madame Tussauds. And it’s his involvement, together with the film’s stylised look and occasionally snappy dialogue that starts you thinking of another director. A certain Quentin Tarantino. Which points you towards its biggest problem.
It’s seriously derivative. Scriptwriter Robert Lowell and, to a lesser extent, Haley himself, are both clearly Tarantino fans. The script goes some way to re-creating QT’s distinctive style, but nowhere close enough for it to get considered an homage. The bulk of the storyline is set inside 24 hours, there’s a kidnap victim strapped to a chair and somebody else who very nearly has his ear cut off. Bring back any memories? Lowell has another film in mind as well, this time from Bryan Singer, although he doesn’t lay out the puzzle at the outset with the same level of skill. It’s only when you get to the climax that you twig something more is going on and that you’re about to meet what’s essentially a poor man’s Keyser Soze.
In what looks like a surprising piece of vanity, Haley has also given himself the best character with the best lines. He’s one half of Travolta’s henchmen, a little and large pairing, both bald, both sporting goatees and both clad in leather jackets. Haley does all the talking – and clearly relishes his lines – and the other larger one does all the heavy stuff. Despite what they’re there to do, they also provide some light relief but the touch that Haley shows in directing himself isn’t there to the same extent when it comes to the other characters.
While the film isn’t as colourless as its title, it does pale into insignificance in comparison to the classics it tries to imitate. You’re better off with the originals. As far as Haley as a director is concerned, it’s not the best debut but it’s not the worst either. If he could find a script with more originality and resist the temptation to venture in front of the camera, we’d see what he was really made of.
In the meantime, it’s time I watched The Usual Suspects again. And Reservoir Dogs.
Criminal Activities is released on DVD on Monday, 7 March and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 10 March.