Criminal Activities: A Movie Review
Today we're considering the June 1, 2015 crime thriller, Criminal Activities. The first thing to say is that I think its wonderful to see how influential Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction of 1994, was and continues to be.
John Travolta is back, but this time he is in the gangster godfather, "Marcellus Wallace" role. He plays local mob chieftain, Eddie Lavato. The lovable Mutt n' Jeff routine that was Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Mr. Tarantino's classic, are returned in the incarnation of "Gerry" (Jack Earle Haley) and his partner (I don't remember the name and I can't seem to find the actor's name and picture).
The second thing to say is that this is a fun movie: fun to watch, fun to listen to; the soundtrack is fantastic---funky, funky music. I was particularly entertained by the performances of the two enforcers and wish I could have seen more of them.
As I said, the Pulp Fiction influence seems substantial. One can feel it in the dialogue, which has that same, not strictly utilitarian, not wholly in service of the plot, story-within-a-story thing that Mr. Tarantino does so well in his writing. This means that the tone or texture of the film does not marinate in intensity.
To digress a little bit, I think, to this day, the most intense crime thriller I have ever seen is The Killers (1946) starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. If we define the word intensity as something like "focus," then "The Killers" certainly fits the bill.
Every single scene and every single bit of dialogue, no matter what it is, in The Killers, drives the film relentlessly forward to its explosive conclusion. The 2007 No Country for Old Men is rather like that, come to think of it; as it The Usual Suspects (1995), for that matter.
Again, Criminal Activities does not meet the aforementioned definition of "intensity.'
But if we define the term "intensity," for cinematic purposes, as, say, an excessive concentration of a particular tonal quality, we might say that a film is "intense," if a mood of dark energy of some kind pervades throughout: of menace, of danger, of anger, of dread---whatever it is.
Even if the tone if overwhelmingly and relentless happy and light, taken to far this is indicative of underlying darkness. "Intensity" in film seems to preclude well-adjusted happiness and fulfillment; intensity undermines any sense of "balance" in the movies.
Again, Criminal Activities does not fit the bill. The movie is distracted and distracting in a good way, making it fun to watch and listen to, as I said before.
I mentioned The Usual Suspects (1995) before. For those of you who have seen it, with Kevin Spacy, Stephen Baldwin, and Chazz Palminteri, Gabriel Byrne, and Benicio del Torro --- you should know that Criminal Activities does give a nod to The Usual Suspects.
The solution to the latter involves the question: What is the true identity of Keyser Soze (you know, I thought for sure it was spelled Kaiser Sozhay)? For those of you who know what I'm talking about, know that the same question unlocks the mystery of Criminal Activities.
This film also contains a shade of the 2003 film with Alfred Molina, John Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Ray Liotta called Identity. For those of you who've seen this film, as I have, you well understand that the central question unlocking the solution is: Which character represents the true danger?
Criminal Activities, then, contains both elements: What is the true identity of Keyser Soze?; and Which character represents the true danger? If you go into the movie asking yourself those two questions, you may find that you have an intimation of what's going on, within the first few minutes---but only an intimation.
This film also has echoes of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, believe it or not, and another Quentin Tarantino joint, Reservoir Dogs. What I mean by that compound assertion is that, what we have with the film Criminal Activities is a revenge pursuit inextricably intertwined with a caper plot. The one depends upon the other.
The other part of what I mean by the above compound assertion is this: In Criminal Activities, as was the case with Reservoir Dogs, there are two actors doing double-acting.
What I mean by "double-acting" is that, in Criminal Activities, there are two characters who "are not what they seem." We have actors playing roles of characters, who are playing additional "fictional" roles internal to the story.
I won't tell you who those characters are because that would give the whole game away. Suffice it to say that the deception is absolutely necessary to the execution of the "real Keyser Soze's" plan.
Okay, now is a good time to brief you on the story.
It goes like this: Mobster Eddie Lavato (John Travolta) loans two-hundred-thousand dollars (it quickly becomes four-hundred-thousand, due to what Eddie Lavato so quaintly calls "the cost of money") to a gaggle of friends, former high school comrades, in fact. They are: Zach (Michael Pitt), Noah (Dan Stevens), Bryce (Rob Brown), and Warren (Christopher Abbot).
They want the money for some investment/business deal. The business deal does not work out and they, therefore, cannot repay the money they borrowed from Eddie Lavato. But its fine, its okay. Lavato is willing to wipe the slate clean, if the gang is willing to do a small favor for him.
Lavato's brief goes like this: He has a dearly beloved niece, who has been kidnapped by underworld types. They tell Lavato that if he wants his niece back, he must deliver to them another person---not money. A person.
The person they want is an African-American gangster named Marques (played by Edi Gathegi), who is the nephew of a big-time gangster kingpin called Demetrios.... something.
Now, when underworld kingpin Demetrios gets a phone call informing him of his beloved nephew's abduction, he flips out, calms down, and then puts out the word that he's offering a two million dollar reward, payable to anyone who finds his nephew Marques.
Okay, back to Eddie Lavato and his four debtors. What Eddie needs Zach and Bryce and Noah and Warren to do---in order to help Mr. Lavato square things with the party of the first part---is to take Marques and hold him somewhere for twenty-four hours. Then Lavato will come and pick up Marques and deliver him to the party of the first part, in exchange for the release of his niece.
Is that clear?
The four, ultimately (since they have no choice) agree to do it: kidnap gangster Marques. They do it and hold him somewhere for some time.
The scenario ultimately ends with Marques dead, duct taped to a chair, his body riddled with bullets. When that happens I want you to remember to ask yourself this question: Who, if anybody, is going to collect the money---you know, the two million dollars for "finding" Marques?
For what its worth, I give this movie three out of four stars. I enjoyed it!
Thank you for reading!