“Criminal Activities,” despite a familiar premise, has a few things going for it: an amusing supporting performance by John Travolta as a slick mob boss; a clever twist ending; and an auspicious feature directorial debut by the Academy Award-nominated actor Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”), who brings a sharp sense of style and structure to the Elmore Leonard-esque crime thriller. It won’t win any awards, but it’s not a bad evening out.
When four old pals (Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, Christopher Abbott and Rob Brown) discover that they are several hundred thousand dollars in debt to Travolta’s mafioso Eddie Lovato after an investment deal goes sour, the only way out is to take a job with Eddie. That the job involves kidnapping, and that they are inept, bickering novices at the hostage-taking racket, should surprise no one. Their scenes with the duct-taped victim (Edi Gathegi) are filled with profanity-laced squabbling that breaks no new ground but is droll enough, in limited quantities. Long simmering resentments from high school get aired in a tedious fashion during this section, slowing down the sluggish second act.
The script by first-time screenwriter Robert Lowell incorporates a few lively subplots involving peripheral characters — especially Haley as Eddie’s enforcer — that showcase the blend of hyperarticulate wisecracking and casual violence that has become the hallmark of movies of this ilk. Yet they do little to enliven the scenes between the four men and their victim.
Eventually an unexpected plot development materializes, adding a satisfying element of surprise and perversely karmic payback. Just when you’re about to write off your investment in “Criminal Activities,” the third-act dividend pays off, in spades.
Unrated. At the AMC Hoffman Center. Also available on demand. Contains violence, obscenity, sex, nudity and drug use. 94 minutes