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Criminal Activities
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Four young men make a risky investment together that puts them in trouble with the mob.

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Criminal Activities online movie review - Not quite Tarantino, but an interesting film

"Criminal Activities" represents the directorial debut of Jackie Earle Healey, who also plays a featured role as Gerry, a dispassionate and hard-as-nails enforcer for mobster Eddie (John Travolta).

My initial reaction is to suggest the bar should lowered a bit and audiences and reviewers should treat the film charitably because it is a directorial debut produced on a modest budget. But one of my all-time favorite films, "Lone Star," was produced with considerably less money, even adjusting for inflation, and films like "Citizen Kane," "Blood Simple," "Throw Momma From The Train" and "Reservoir Dogs" were also directorial debuts. But perhaps those were exceptions to the rule.

The film has several very strong elements. Haley and Gathegi steal their scenes with strong performances and clever dialogue. The plot has some satisfying twists and reversals and a huge reveal at the end that casts everything we've seen in an entirely different perspective.

The reveal is on the same order of magnitude as "The Usual Suspects" and "The Sixth Sense"; however, it is not nearly as satisfying or as gratifying. The film fails to foreshadow or leave sufficient ambiguities, so the reversal comes off as a complete surprise and not an alternate interpretation that the audience can easily assimilate.

One gets the impression that Haley's performance is exactly what he expects from his actors. Gerry is simple, direct, unquestioningly loyal, but clever enough to understand the bigger picture and to take his own initiative when changing circumstances demand it. The four protagonists lack such qualities and their predicament quickly spirals out of control as a consequence. The movie's greatest failing is that it never develops any real sympathy for the four protagonists, who come across as inept doofuses.

Technically, the film kind of gets the job done without much panache. The constant motion from the jiggly-cam shots could leave viewers reaching for the Dramamine. Many of the shots are dark, not low-key, but dark. Effects of gunfire are uneven. In one shot, a character seems to slap a blood capsule against his chest, but it doesn't seem to rupture or the effect is lost in the dimly lit room. Other scenes seem to have employed the same special effects supervisor who worked on some of the Monty Python films. Two scenes of a character flipping through B&W photographs seem reminiscent of the opening scene in "Chinatown." Who prints photographs anymore? The less said about Travolta's makeup, the better.

The film clearly draws inspiration from Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard. While it fails to match their accomplishments, it does a reasonable job in its emulation. I'll watch it again to look for clues to the big reveal. It might have been much more interesting with a few deftly planted clues that perhaps all is not as it seems.

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