Synopsis – In a last-ditch effort to stop a diabolical plot, a dead CIA operative’s memories, secrets, and skills are implanted into a death-row inmate in hopes the he will complete the operative’s mission.
My Take – Is it a weird coincidence that this a second film about converged identities starring Ryan Reynolds? Last year, Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley starred in the snore fest thriller “Self\Less,” where Kingsley‘s character’s consciousness was transferred to Reynolds‘ body. This time it goes vice versa for Reynolds. I have to admit it. I went into this film wanting to hate it. But instead I was served a delightfully cheesy 90s-style action movie mixed with buckets of humor and emotion along with some violent yet twisty action. Their was a time when names such as Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman would mean the film had attached an A grade cast to itself, nevertheless despite the silly title and the ridiculous story line, the film remains both gripping and a lot of fun to watch, especially with Costner doing his second Liam Neeson– style tough guy career reinvention. Some of the plot elements are laughable and nonsensical. But there’s entertainment value watching venerated actors drop F-bombs while racking up a bloody body count. The director goes full steam ahead on playing serious with a Bond-esque villain and a liberation subplot. It ends up like a B-film. Once you accept that, then there’s some fun to be had. The story follows violent imprisoned criminal Jericho (Kevin Costner) who is implanted with the memories of a dead CIA agent Ben Pope (Ryan Reynolds). Halfway through a mission to help a young hacker known as Dutchman (Michael Pitt), Pope is tortured and killed by Spanish anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla). Leaving the CIA’s head of operations Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) to call in controversial Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones). Though he’s still five years away from human trials, it’s imperative that Franks uses his inexplicably advanced surgical technologies to implant Pope’s memories into the brain of a suitable candidate. And that subject is Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man locked away in prison for most of his life due to specific damage caused to his frontal lobe during childhood (leaving him with a total lack of empathy and an inability to determine right from wrong). The operation seems like a failure, until Stewart escapes and seeks out Pope’s grieving wife (Gal Gadot). The first thing that occurred to me while watching this was its similarity to Self/less (2015), but it really does not matter how ridiculous the plot is as director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) has proven that he can make anything credible and exciting. The movie’s set-up may be ridiculous, but at least there are good guys to root for and bad guys to root against. However, most of these characters are wearing both white hats and black hats.
For an action thriller drama, the action segments are handled efficiently, particularly the car chase involving the British police car pile up n the highway and the brief underwater scenes. Though I do enjoy a bit of violence in movies, I am not one to condone it. This film is exceptionally violent, evident in scenes like the electric torture at the film’s start, the bloodied photo of one of Jericho’s victims the brain surgery and the segment where Jericho beats a number of people up to get food and nab a van. Tools used in fights also include a hammer. Though there is ample opportunity for the script to moralize, the script thankfully stays away from it. Jericho is a man with no conscience, a killing machine who is given a chance to have feelings after being implanted with Pope’s memories. Once Jericho begins to feel, he is torn for example between saving one life – Pope’s daughter against sacrificing hers to save many, many more. Even the gags arrive in the company of bone-crushing violence, as Jerico finds himself at war with the CIA and the anarchists — led by Heimdahl’s sexy lover/enforcer (Antje Traue) — as well as all sorts of ancillary law-enforcement types, who exist just to be bashed, smashed, or blown up. Director Ariel Vromen keeps everything moving so briskly that there isn’t time to stop and think about how silly the premise is. All of these characters act on their basest impulses, never thinking through anything before they charge into the next situation. Characters shout deliciously silly things like, “If you had kept better tabs on the Dutchman, we would have already had the wormhole!” You will wonder constantly why this isn’t a Nicolas Cage movie. Gary Oldman is totally out of control, chomping the scenery within an inch of its life. But the movie is actually kind of good. The emotional stakes are there, and director Vromen never lets it stop moving. Even when it’s chaotic, it’s still clear. Centered on a quasi-Frankenstein concept updated to the high-tech spy world, the script hinges on a premise so far-fetched that you’re forced to think hard about whether to buy it or not. The cause of the conflict aside, the concept that the film ran with was so creative and interesting. Like I said earlier, it is very similar to Self/less (2015), except more complicated and thus more fascinating. Just like that film, this one is centered around Ryan Reynolds, who instead of showing his character on-screen for the remainder of the movie, his character’s very important mind is showcased after being implanted into Kevin Costner’s—the so-called “Criminal”—head. The idea that someones memories might make an unrepentant killer feel something real for the first time ends up being a rather poignant concept. Jericho, written off and imprisoned by society, not only gets a purpose in his life, but he also gets to understand the way that other, normal people understand the world.
Costner truly sells this, and he develops a tenderness toward Pope’s wife and daughter. Viewers who try to make sense of the plot, or of London’s geography, will find their brains aching like Jericho’s. So it’s better to just hang on and enjoy the ride. The film’s edgy, urgent tone adds the illusion of depth amid the mindlessly brutal violence, while the formidable cast adds weight to a variety of rather thinly drawn characters, from Oldman‘s bluster to Jones‘ wry wit. Only Costner gets some real depth to play with, and Jericho is constantly surprising, mixing a killer instinct with brainy invention and some properly dark emotions. His scenes with Gal Gadot (as Bill’s wife) are unnervingly tense and moving. These are the moments that make this film much more than the usual action thriller nonsense. And despite the absurd set-up, the script continually wrong-foots the audience, killing off main characters and sending the narrative in unexpected directions. Even Molla‘s villain is more intriguing than the usual baddie. That said, the movie has absolutely nothing to say about its central themes of whistle-blowing, terrorism or political paranoia. But in Jericho’s potential rebirth from mindless killer to quick-thinking maverick, the movie manages to say some intriguing things about the nature of the human soul. Kevin Costner in the lead, playing the most violent character of his career is a delight to watch. Costner’s grunt-filled performance was his best and most peculiar in a long time. Gary Oldman struggles with his generic dialogue, Alice Eve is little more than a background agent, Tommy Lee Jones disappears for most of the film, and even Scott Adkins is lost in the crowd. Michael Pitt is alright. But Gal Gadot is in the most unfortunate position, scripted to readily accept Jericho as a replacement for Bill – not long after she’s potentially threatened with rape and even the slaughter of her child. And her traumatic experiences don’t prevent her from allowing that same young daughter (Lara Decaro) to interact with Jericho as if he was her father. Nevertheless, there’s something fascinating about the idea of an irredeemable sociopath getting an opportunity to grapple with emotions for the first time, or an adept terrorizer gaining and then slowly losing his ability to stave off the desire for destruction. On the whole, ‘Criminal’ is an entertaining absurd thriller which unapologetically sets itself as an 80s to 90s action movie. If that’s your thing, your in for a ride or else avoid.
Directed – Ariel Vromen
Rated – R
Run Time – 113 minutes