I didn’t go to the theater yesterday to see Kevin Costner’s new action movie Criminal. I didn’t even really know what it was about beyond “generic Kevin Costner/Gary Oldman action movie.” I was actually there to see The Jungle Book (for the second time), but it was sold-out even though I’d arrived an hour early. Criminal was the only other option that worked, time-wise, and through Fandango on my phone I discovered that in addition to Costner and Oldman the cast includes Ryan Reynolds, Tommy Lee Jones and Gal Gadot. The brief user reviews described it as a fun, but brainless call back to 80s/90s action movies.
Sold. That’s a heck of a cast, and I’m not completely above “check your brain at the door” action movies. Heck, I grew up on Schwarzenegger flicks.
I should have just gone home. To pay to see Criminal is a [wait for it] criminal waste of time and money. It doesn’t even fully transfer over into bad cinema territory where the mockery it inspires makes the viewing experience enjoyable. The performances prevent that from completely happening because despite the plot’s relentlessly stupidity Costner and pals are 100% committed to making the best of it.
The basic plot: In the interest of national security (someone hacked the defense department) the U.S. government needs to transfer a recently deceased CIA agent’s (Ryan Reynolds) memories to someone else, but the only person who immediately qualifies for this first-of-its-kind procedure is a sociopathic criminal and hardened prisoner named Jericho Stewart (Costner). Due to a childhood accident, he has a one-in-a-hundred-million brain condition. It’s why he feels no emotions, but it’s also why he’s the perfect candidate for the procedure (something about grey matter, stem cells and other such “sure, let’s go with that” science). Tommy Lee Jones is the gentle doctor who’s made this research his lifelong work, and Gary Oldman’s the impatient, short-tempered CIA bigwig who wants results yesterday.
If successful, Jericho will wake from the procedure the same person he’s always been just with an extra set of memories which can be used to identify the location of a Edward Snowden (Michael Pitt) type who was stashed away by Reynolds in an unknown UK location. However, Jericho might also pick up some of Reynold’s emotions and abilities. At no point along the way does anyone tell Jericho what’s happening or what’s at stake. This is not surgery he voluntarily submits himself to. In fact, he may not have even known he was having surgery until they put him into a surgical gown.
Still, this is a workable scenario for an action movie, like a combination of The Bourne Identity, John Woo’s Face/Off and Michael Bay’s The Rock. In fact, Jericho’s introduction as a bearded prisoner so clearly evokes Sean Connery in the The Rock that it’s not at all surprising to learn Criminal’s screenwriters (Douglas Crook, David Weisberg) actually co-wrote The Rock. It was their big Hollywood breakthrough back in 1996. That was also around the time Kevin Costner’s career crumbled around his overly ambitious knees thanks to the dual failures of Water World (1995) and The Postman (1997). However, in-between those two colossal flops he made Tin Cup (1996). At that point, Michael Bay action movies seemed far, far away from him. Times have changed.
Except you can’t even really call Criminal a Michael Bay action movie. For starters, that’s just factually incorrect. Bay’s name is nowhere to be found among the producers (there are 20 of them!) or in the director’s chair (Israeli-born Ariel Vromen). Also, as The Atlantic argued Bay movies feature signature flourishes like “sweeping camerawork, slow-motion, splattering fluids, exposition relegated to quick filler scenes, one-liners, set pieces that thrill via visual chaos,” a general “America, Fuck Yeah!” vibe as you watch shit blow up. Criminal certainly has its fair share of short, expository scenes, but it’s decidedly more gritty aesthetic is its own brand of bland. It’s oddly less obnoxious in tone, but more annoying in its stupidity since its taking everything so seriously.
Not that you’ll necessarily pick up on that at first because Criminal starts off rather promisingly. The opening sequence depicting Reynold’s death is suitable tense, cleverly edited to reveal a techno-anarchist (Jordi Malla) hacking and re-routing a GPA thus resulting in the CIA thinking Reynolds is going one place when he’s actually heading somewhere just outside their protection. Things take a turn for the silly the moment we meet Jericho and hear the low, scary voice Costner is running with, and Oldman is playing everything so remarkably big as the incredibly cliched taskmaster CIA figure that we venture into campy territory. However, the steady hand of Tommy Lee Jones provides a reassuring presence and you learn to appreciate the clear joy Costner is having playing a pure bad guy.
And that’s the arc this movie wants to take. Jericho starts out as an emotionless monster, but by the end he will be changed by the experience. It’s admirable how fully they commit to his astonishing, amoral brutality in the beginning, and you can see him morph into more of the traditional Costner character. However, it’s a gradual change. He initially uses his new memories to pursue his own self-interest, and generally trolls around London behaving like an American bully, stealing people’s food with a “What are you gonna do about it?” look on his face and viciously beating a group of men to steal their van.
I’ve skipped a step, and this is the “Well, if they didn’t do that there’d be no movie” moment. The second Jericho wakes from the surgery he is grilled by Oldman over Jones’ protests, and when Jericho claims ignorance Oldman instantly discards him, decisively declaring the procedure a failure (and failing to even ponder the possibility that Jericho might be lying). There is apparently such an immediate and extreme risk to national security that they can’t afford to spare a single second. However, as Jones points out Jericho just had major brain surgery. Just look at him. Does this look like a guy prepared for an interrogation?:
But then he wouldn’t be transported home in a single car with two guards he easily murders, thus engineering his own escape.
Then he wouldn’t begin to feel emotions and develop a conscience for the first time in his life.
Then…well, you get the point. Like I said, there’d be no movie, or at least not the kind of movie they wanted to make. The kind of movie they wanted to make is one in which the villain shouts ridiculous lines like “If you’d kept better tabs on The Dutchman then we’d already have the wormhole!” and we’re supposed to keep a straight face.
And if there was just a little bit of that it would forgivable. After all, I’ve merely highlighted a plot hole. However, that is but the beginning of a series of completely nonsense plot points, most of which exist solely because Oldman’s character consistently behaves with such extreme lack of foresight and general incompetence that his Comissioner Gordon’s “funnel the entire city’s police force into an underground tunnel” strategy from The Dark Knight Rises looks genius by comparison. It must be contagious because eventually, even the villains catch Oldman’s stupidity, and Jericho’s triumphs come at the extreme expense of logic.
Fine. Are the action scenes good? Not particularly. There’s nothing in them which demands this movie should have been released in theaters instead of going direct-to-video.
The most intriguing and easily the trickiest thing going on is Jericho bonding with Reynold’s widow (Gal Gadot) and daughter. Costner and Gadot play the incredibly complicated emotional nuance for all their worth. She accurately declares at one point that the emotional burden she feels is “impossible,” and he effectively conveys the anguish of someone who feels emotions for her now that he knows are not actually his own. It’s exactly as uncomfortable for both of them as it would be in real life in such a scenario, and there is a Flowers for Algernon/Awakenings element to it where Jericho has been told the memories he gained in the surgery will possibly fade within 48 hours.
It’s an incompatible marriage, though, this dumb action movie wed to a character drama. As a result, Criminal ends as a film in search of its own brain.
1. Quantum Leap: The phrase “Kevin Costner faces mirror images that are not his own” kept occurring to me throughout even though there is only one moment where he looks in a mirror and sees Ryan Reynolds’ face instead of is own.
2. Self/Less: Yep, Ryan Reynolds just did a movie kinda like this one last year, except there Ben Kingsley was a filthy rich man who transferred his consciousness to Reynolds’ body.
3. The Women: Beyond Gal Gadot, the female cast consists of Alice Eve as a CIA agent, Antje Traue as the villain’s lead henchperson and other nameless bodies. However, [spoiler] Eve is disposed of so abruptly it’s unintentionally funny, and Jericho brutally murders Traue in what’s meant to be a celebratory moment but is instead needlessly nasty.
25% – “Despite the valiant efforts of a game and talented cast, Criminal has little to offer beyond the bare minimum expected by the most undemanding of genre enthusiasts.”