Despite a fun performance from Kevin Costner, Criminal is a half-baked action/thriller that fails to properly explore its sci-fi premise.
The events of Criminal are set in motion when London-based CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) attempts to make a deal with Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt): a hacker, known as “The Dutchman”, who claims to have gained control over the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile system – information that he is willing to sell to the highest-bidding customer. Bill appears to have succeeded in going undercover and getting himself in a position to purchase the intel from Stroop (at the same time, providing him with a safe place to stay until the transaction is complete), when he is then captured and tortured to death by Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Mollà), a self-described Spanish anarchist who also wants to make a deal with “The Dutchman”.
With Heimbahl now on the hunt for Stroop too, Bill’s fellow CIA agents and boss Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) are left scrambling to find “The Dutchman” – since Bill didn’t inform them of his location before being killed – and to stop him before he demonstrates what he’s capable of. This drives Quaker to attempt a desperate solution; one that involves an experimental treatment that would transfer elements of Bill’s brain (most importantly, his memories) from his dead body to that of Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a life-long criminal and sociopath who suffers from a brain injury that makes him the ideal candidate to undergo this procedure. While the surgery appears to be a failure at first, Jericho soon finds himself able to fully access not only Bill’s memories, but also his skills and feelings – in turn, causing Jericho to grow a conscience that compels him to help others, for the first time in his life.
Criminal, as you may have deduced just from reading the above plot summary, is a movie that explores an intriguing sci-fi premise through the lens of a pulpy action/thriller – one featuring a narrative that is over-convoluted and riddled with narrative holes, but entertainingly so on more than one occasion. Director Ariel Vromen previously examined the complicated mindset of real-life killer Richard Kuklinski in the 2012 biopic The Iceman – so knowing that, it comes as less of a surprise that Criminals is at its best during the scenes where it’s unfolding as a character study for Jericho; a role that allows Costner the opportunity to play against type as a gleefully unrepentant law-breaker who (at first) lacks the ability to empathize with others. Costner seems to almost relish the chance to play a character who almost delights in being evil, in turn delivering one of his most memorable performances in years.
The problem with Criminal is that whenever the film is not focused on Costner’s Jericho being wicked, it’s moving from one highly-implausible plot point to the next without taking the time to either flesh out the rest of the film’s characters or fully explore the implications of the intriguing sci-fi premise being used to drive its narrative forward. Criminal was penned by the screenwriting duo of Douglas Cook (who passed away in 2015) and David Weisberg, the pair that also co-wrote such films as the B-movie thriller Double Jeopardy and the Michael Bay-directed The Rock in the 1990s – but haven’t been credited for writing on any film that’s been released since then. That seemingly accounts for why Criminal feels like a cheesy high-concept thriller from a bygone era in Hollywood, albeit one featuring modern digital-era technology (though it’s generally used as an overly-convenient plot device) and without the tongue-in-cheek quality that recent ’90s throwbacks have possessed (see Olympus Has Fallen).
In terms of the directorial style for Criminal, Vromen embraces the Luc Besson/EuropaCorp approach to action/thriller filmmaking (see, for example, the Costner-headlined 3 Days to Kill), complete with more darkly-saturated visuals and pacing that prioritizes forward momentum over proper story development. The cinematography by Dana Gonzales (who’s worked on such TV series as Fargo and Longmire) is more steady-handed and cohesive than your average EuropaCorp action movie (in particular, the Taken sequels), while the editing by Vromen’s frequent collaborator David Weinberg is likewise less hectic by comparison. Downside of this method is that Criminal feels pretty generic in terms of its aesthetics – not to mention, it lacks the kinetic energy that even the most over the top (and ridiculous) Besson-backed B-movies past have possessed.
Criminal does in fact show Bill Pope’s memories as Jericho recalls them, though these cutaway scenes – which are filmed from the first-person perspective of the character – are more effective at providing key plot-related information than adding more “heart” to the proceedings or making Jericho’s emotional arc more compelling. Part of the problem is that Pope, as played by Ryan Reynolds (who starred in a similar “pulpy thriller-meets high concept sci-fi” film in 2015, titled Selfless) serves foremost as a plot device in the film and is not developed into a three-dimensional person; neither is his wife Jill (Gal Gadot) and daughter Emma (Lara Decaro), for that matter. For related reasons, the moments that Jericho shares with Jill and/or Emma that are meant to be tender come off more as saccharine and ultimately ring hollow.
The supporting cast of Criminal is a curious one, in that it is filled to the brim with recognizable faces – Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness), Scott Adkins (The Expendables 2), Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire), and Colin Salmon (Limitless) being among them – yet the majority of the cast are stuck playing stock supporting archetypes (most of which function primarily as exposition-delivery machines) that could have just as easily been handled by lesser-known actors. On the other hand, Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones bring greater depth and substance to their respective roles in the film, as (in turn) grizzled CIA boss Quaker Wells and Dr. Franks, the scientist behind the experimental surgery that Jericho undergoes. Similarly, Antje Traue memorably brings to life an unstoppable hench(wo)man in Criminal much like she did as Faora in Man of Steel – here, playing Elsa, a villain who’s more mysterious yet also more interesting than her boss, Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Mollà).
Despite a fun performance from Kevin Costner, Criminal is a half-baked action/thriller that fails to properly explore its sci-fi premise. The film offers the appeal of a fun-bad B-movie at times, all while effectively taking advantage of its R Rating to allow Kevin Costner’s Jericho to behave reprehensibly (sometimes to darkly humorous effect). Nevertheless, Criminal‘s best elements are dragged down by the uncreative filmmaking choices made here, as well as the larger narrative – a storyline that often plays out as one head-scratching character decision or illogical plot beat after another. Criminal isn’t so under-whelming as to leave you wanting to scrub the film from your memory (much like the way that Jericho tries to ignore the concerns and feelings that have been planted into his head) – but there’s little reason to see this one in a theater, either.
Criminal is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 113 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence and language throughout.
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