By James Kenney. Amended from original publication at Queens Free Press in 2015.
Long live Jackie Earle Haley. Aficionados of 1970s cinema (which should translate to all fans of cinema, even those who think Seven Samurai is too long but Avengers: Endgame is just right) had better know him as an icon of that era of sophisticated Hollywood entertainment, playing the preternaturally mature little league player Kelly Leak in Michael Ritchie’s Bad News Bears and the good-hearted working-class kid Moocher in Peter Yate’s indefatigable classic Breaking Away. As he was not blessed with movie-star looks, it was perhaps not inevitable but nevertheless not astounding that he later found himself cast (when cast at all) as bad guys in low-grade schlock like Maniac Cop 3 and Dollman. Haley then wandered off into obscurity, but there was no doubt that for me he was a true star because I worried about him and found this plunge into seeming oblivion tragic. No one should give a performance as impeccable as the one he (and the entire cast) gave in Breaking Away and end up out of work.
So no one was happier than me when he reemerged after a twenty-year absence, apparently bloodied but unbowed, garnering an Academy-Award nomination for his portrayal of a pedophile in Little Children, and has since worked regularly, appearing as Rorschach in Watchmen and Freddie Krueger in The Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. As it turns out, he had spent his “lost years” directing commercials and industrial films in Texas, work that has served him well as he directs his first feature, Criminal Activities, starring Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt, Haley himself, and John Travolta.
The film, which involves a bunch of young screw-ups being pressured into a kidnapping by a polite but sociopathic mobster (Travolta) they owe money to, looks, on the surface, like any number of recent releases consigned to Video on Demand status with a very limited theatrical run. What sets Activities apart is that it’s actually a rock-solid entertainment, sustaining its hard-edged comic vision, with Haley identifying the grace notes and eccentric beats in otherwise predictable hipster wise-guy material supplied by writer Robert Lowell.
Haley establishes the jazzy, violent milieu effortlessly in a few quick scenes, allowing the actors the room to breathe and inhabit their (occasionally stock) characters fully. An early scene with four guys bantering around a table is reassuring; the actors have built a pleasing rhythm and rapport with each other, and the director serves the material, using a clean, secure style that doesn’t call attention to itself. The film doesn’t rush into an action sequence involving characters we don’t know or care about, nor does the film slow down or hammer points to aid viewer comprehension. Haley trusts the actors to sell the material, and from the evidence, the actors trust him.
With good humor and energy, Travolta plays his part with a lot more panache than he has demonstrated in his last few performances. Travolta unfortunately looks a tad botoxed, and his hairpiece is initially distracting; if he’s not careful he could soon be entering the latter day Burt Reynolds world of inert features and improbable coiffures. But Travolta quickly reminds the viewer why he’s The Star, rattling off a lot of dialogue in his first scene with verve and wit. Travolta’s mafia man Eddie enjoys being out of control; when he snaps, you can feel the paranoid self-satisfaction. Haley injects lots of style and humor throughout; most every scene results in a laugh based purely on performance; he knows how to keep the actors loose and lively, even with fairly hackneyed post-Tarantino wiseguy material.
Criminal Activities is roomy and amiable, and reminds me a bit of Daniel Schechter’s recent Elmore Leonard adaptation Life of Crime; the dialogue is too often more Tarantino faux-hip than Leonard-lilt easy cool ( mafia wiseguys seldom talk about quantum physics while trying to collect on a loan), but Haley keeps the plot’s curls and hitches fairly unpredictable until a final act where the laborious manipulations of the screenplay are hard to overcome. Nevertheless, Criminal Activities is one of the most enjoyable of the 2015 V.O.D. releases and a must-see for those who like to watch criminal behavior (and film-making) done on a human scale.
Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran once said “In the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning and is refreshed’; in a period in America where film production is either focused on gargantuan big-budget sequels and reboots or on self-consciously important Academy-Award fodder, it is nice to come across Criminal Activities, a tight little disreputable tale that holds interest for 90 minutes. Welcome back, Mr. Haley.