John Travolta as a charismatic gangster in an impeccably tailored suit. Casual references to Marcel Proust and quantum physics. An outrageously byzantine plot orchestrated around a big twist ending. The ’90s are back again in “Criminal Activities,” a profane thriller that so closely resembles the B-movies that followed “The Usual Suspects,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty,” it could be mistaken for an archeological discovery. Making his directorial debut, veteran thesp Jackie Earle Haley uncannily re-creates the feeling of watching an Elmore Leonard clone circa 1996, when hunger for philosophizing hoodlums was at an all-time high. There’s nothing remotely fresh about this revival, but tight pacing and an overqualified cast keep things zipping along nicely, which may not be enough to draw people to theaters on Nov. 20, but should clear the lower bar of its simultaneous VOD release.
Were the four buddies at the center of “Criminal Activities” not texting so furiously, the film could be mistaken for another “Suicide Kings” or “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” or “Two Days in the Valley,” since so little has been invested in the contemporary backdrop. All the emphasis is on the foreground, which offers the familiar premise of amateur crooks getting mixed up with trigger-happy professionals. Playing the type of guy who wears shades indoors, Michael Pitt stars as Zach, a smug young stock broker who reconnects with his friends Noah (Dan Stevens), Warren (Christopher Abbott), and Bryce (Rob Brown) at a funeral. A few drinks later, the boys start scheming.
Noah proposes a can’t-miss insider trading scheme involving a small pharmaceutical company on the verge of FDA approval for a game-changing drug. The four agree to partner up on a $200,000 investment, though only Noah has money on hand, which the others assume he inherited from his recently deceased father. When the company goes under, they discover the source of Noah’s cash is Eddie (John Travolta), a mob kingpin who sips on a kale shake and recites the seven rules of economics before informing them they owe him twice the money they borrowed. Eddie offers the cash-strapped men a way out: Kidnap a vicious gangster named Marques (Edi Gathegi), a member of a rival crime syndicate.
“Criminal Activities” aims for a mix of comic ineptitude and two-fisted gangster theatrics, and Haley hits the mark in the kidnapping sequence, which has Marques nearly muscling his way past the hapless quartet in a public bathroom. Stevens’ about-face from the masculine force of “The Guest” to a bushy-haired weakling here is a marvel to behold, but it’s Gathegi who steals the movie as a cool operator who’s completely in control of the situation, even when pinned to a chair with duct tape. Travolta’s return to Chili Palmer mode isn’t a bad idea, but the glib one-liners in Robert Lowell’s script don’t give him much of an arsenal; Gathegi’s serene posture and missile-guided barbs present the more clear and present danger in the room.
Pitt and the gang have a much harder time of it. Each of the four have the thinnest of backstories (one frets that his girlfriend is cheating on him, another struggles with his sobriety, etc.), but once the trouble escalates, they mostly just scream at each other. Haley and Lowell give the peripheral characters a little Elmore Leonard color, but they aren’t as generous with Pitt, Stevens, Abbott, and Brown, who tell each other to “Shut the f— up!” as if they were being paid by the utterance. Marques doesn’t want to spend another minute in the room with these guys; after a while, the feeling is mutual.
Haley gives himself the type of role Jackie Earle Haley might play as Eddie’s chief goon. Tech credits are serviceable across the board, though the pic’s habit of goosing up the action with brief song clips reps a minor but persistent irritation.