Digressive glibness has been the obligatory mode for crime movies since the 1990s, popularized by Quentin Tarantino via Elmore Leonard and Seinfeld. The mark of a high-status character, like John Travolta's Eddie in Criminal Activities, is a tendency to answer questions with lectures about Shakespeare, television, or the principles of economics. Directed by former Watchman and Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Haley, the film also features the welcome return of Travolta's crowd-pleasing wig from Get Shorty. Unlike the laconic tough guy Chili Palmer, however, crime boss Eddie is expansive and personable. But you know from the tightness of his wig's styling that he's got his situation under control, unlike the film's four protagonists.
After attending the funeral of a friend, real estate agent Noah (Dan Stevens) talks three douchey college buddies into an insider trading swindle that goes bad. Bankrolled with money borrowed from Eddie, the group now owes him $400,000, which they're forced to repay by kidnapping a small-time gangster (Edi Gathegi) who's angered him. The plot radiates out to federal agents, small-time hoods, and the leader of a black crime syndicate. The director appears, manfully wigless, as a glib, digressive mob enforcer, and Michael Pitt scowls and growls through a series of plot twists as a broker who thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him. The script veers from comic, narrated episodes to surprising violence, planting early narrative seeds that yield some effective surprises later, a dynamic range that's pretty comfortable to old hands Travolta and Travolta's Chili Palmer wig after all these years.