Dir. Jackie Earle Haley. US, 2015, 94 mins

Criminal Activities John Travolta

John Travolta’s presence in Criminal Activities, a darkly comic, Elmore Leonard-influenced kidnap drama about criminal gangs, their enforcers, the FBI and a quartet of old school friends who find themselves caught in the middle, inevitably brings to mind his work on Get Shorty, although Jackie Earle Haley’s directorial debut is also a case of The Usual Suspects as his cast cycles through some film-familiar scenarios to varying degrees of success.

Haley casts himself to type as Eddie’s leather-jacketed enforcer, prone to indulging in ‘royale with cheese’-style conversations

Michael Pitt and ‘Downton Dan’ Stevens (who takes an executive producer credit) head the cast and are, along with Travolta and Haley himself, the main draws in this intermittently entertaining film, set to go out through RLJ Entertainment on a day-and-date release in the US. Despite its familiarity, Criminal Activities should do decent business on VOD where its combined cast has an all-ages appeal, although Robert Lowell’s screenplay struggles to drive through 94 minutes. An interesting conclusion makes the film more satisfying in retrospect than during the actual projection.

Criminal Activities kicks off at a funeral, where Zach (Pitt) reunites with school friends Warren (Christopher Abbott), Bryce (Rob Brown) and the bullied Noah (Stevens, in a shaggy perm), to mourn the untimely death of their pal. Zach is a slickly confident stockbroker, about to get married; Warren is a recovering alcoholic; Bryce isn’t awarded a backstory; and Noah’s father has just died, apparently leaving him a fortune.

Smoking weed after the funeral, the four plot to use some insider information and “live in the moment” by investing in a stock and turning a quick profit. Noah volunteers the funds, but when the plan goes awry, it transpires that he didn’t actually have the money himself and the lender was none other than local mobster Eddie Lovato (Travolta), who is going to extract a high and complicated price for repayment.

Travolta, channelling Chili Palmer, and his fascinatingly immobile and unchanging jet-black barnet, quickly take over as the film’s centre as Eddie blackmails the comically inept quartet into kidnapping local hood Marques (Edi Gathegi), nephew of the head of the ‘Black Crime Syndicate’ (played by Tyrone Jenkins).

Haley casts himself to type as Eddie’s leather-jacketed enforcer, prone to indulging in chatty ‘royale with cheese’-style conversations, discussing Shakespeare and relating plotpoints in Pulp Fiction flashback. The FBI, meanwhile, are as useless as the kidnappers, and another familiar corner of the film for the viewer to bounce off.

Apart from Travolta and his charisma, evident even when contemplating a kale juice, Pitt and Stevens offer as much as they can in their under-written parts (Stevens in particular is quite a revelation in a different role). Pitt is awarded a cheating fiancé and a business, making him the most fleshed-out of young leads. The fim’s discovery is the Kenya-born Edi Gathegi, strong as the confident Marques. Visually, Criminal Activities is shot and presented in a straight-forward manner which gels with its likely small-screen destination.

Production companies: Phoenix Rising, Wayne Rice Productions

Contact: RLJ Entertainment, intl@rljentertainment.com

Producers: Wayne Rice, Howard Bird, Micah Sparks

Screenplay: Robert Lowell

Cinematography: Seamus Tierney

Editor: Alex Marquez

Production design: Jennifer Klide

Main cast: Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, Christopher Abbott, Rob Brown, Edi Gathegi, Jacki Earle Haley, John Travolta, Tyrone Jenkins