I’m all for actors reinventing themselves later on in their careers, especially when it involves turning to gritty, low and mid-budget genre fare. Thus far, however, Liam Neeson has had the lion’s share of the success when it comes to claiming this more mature action hero status, though guys like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger never really vacated their thrones. Sean Penn and Pierce Brosnan both tried their hand at it over the last few years, with less than stellar results. Kevin Costner is no stranger to thrillers, and though he took a swing and whiffed with 3Days to Kill, he’s back to give it another go with Criminal.
Sadly, again, the result is not great. To be fair, it’s not a travesty either, but there isn’t much to recommend Criminal to anyone outside of Kevin Costner completists. And considering the sheer amount of star power in play, this is missed opportunity of the highest order.
By far Criminal’s greatest asset is its cast, which features not one, but two Oscar winners, in Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones; another Academy Award nominee, Gary Oldman; two newly minted mega superheroes in the form of Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman); and both Alice Eve and Michael Pitt. This assembly of top tier talent, almost all of whom are completely misused or underutilized in every instance, has to be the sole reason why Criminal didn’t go directly to the DTV market, which is where it should have dropped.
More than an action romp, director Ariel Vromen’s film is an attempt at a slow-burn, John La Carre-style spy thriller. There’s a disjointed tonal vibe, lack of depth, and whack-ass dialogue that induces cringing and spontaneous laughter.
Billy Pope (Reynolds) is a CIA spook in London running an op on a hacker known as the Dutchman (Pitt), who can access and control the entire U.S. military arsenal. Billy is the only one who knows of the hacker’s whereabouts, but when the agent is killed, his boss, Quaker Wells (Oldman), has a doctor (Tommy Lee Jones) use an experimental procedure to implant Billy’s memories into the brain of a gruff, maladjusted convict named Jericho Wells (Costner).
Jericho is like watching a sociopathic version of Billy Bob Thornton’s dim-witted character in Sling Blade. Tommy Lee Jones explains it as Jericho doesn’t understand social norms because childhood head trauma left his brain development stunted, so he feels no emotion or empathy. Or, as the felon explains it himself, “My brain don’t always work right.” But thankfully he’s got Ryan Reynolds in his head so the two personalities can duke it out over control and hopefully find the Dutchman before his program falls into the wrong hands.
This is where Criminal stands tallest, when Jericho struggles with these new, unfamiliar feelings. Unfortunately, any shining moments are buried beneath an onslaught of tedium and the unnecessary complications that take precedence over the character work and narrative arc. Given the chance, Costner could have elevated this middle of the road thriller, but he’s never given the opportunity; the film is far too busy to care about such paltry concerns.
And yes, this is yet another body-swap movie involving Ryan Reynolds. If you're keeping track, thus far on his resume he has Criminal, Self/less, The Change-Up, and R.I.P.D., which loosely falls into this category. (There is also a Halloween episode of his old sitcom, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, where he trades places with a co-star.)
As complicated as this plot may sound, Criminal gets even more tangled and convoluted as it unfolds. In addition to the we’re-all-going-to-die thread, Billy’s memories—of his wife, Jill (Gal Gadot), and daughter—poke through the crotchety surface, haunting Jericho. The Dutchman also gets a brief subplot about trying to find Edward Snowden-type asylum in Russia, and a wealthy terrorist, with the incredible name Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Molla), further muddies the waters.
All of these asides and characters are underwritten. Criminal is the kind of movie where the first time a person appears on screen, text pops up to deliver their name and a defining character trait that is realistically where the development stops. For instance, that’s how we know Billy works for the CIA, and that Heimbahl is a “Spanish Anarchist.” Even the half-baked science of trying to swap brains is explained away with a few sentences of jargon that are supposed to sound authoritative and technical.
The pace plods along, always on the verge of action but never quite delivering. Which is a shame as the cast also features Scott Adkins, one of the premier badass cinematic martial artists currently working. Primarily a denizen of brawling DTV action flicks, I kept watching and waiting for Vromen to make use of this particular asset, a hope that was ultimately in vain.
Adkins is far from alone in being mishandled here. While he appears to be having a total blast when playing up Jericho’s antisocial side, terrorizing unsuspecting shop owners, Costner mumbles and mutters his way through what, at times, borders on a slack-jawed hillbilly caricature. Oldman chews on every bit of scenery he can find, hollering his way across each scene. Pitt’s defining characteristic is a vaguely Scandinavian accent. Tommy Lee Jones deserves better than his handful of scenes as a hangdog scientist, but then again, so do most of the other actors.
The moments with Jill and Jericho come closest to reaching an emotional high as anything in Criminal. We’re reminded that Kevin Costner still has acting chops, almost digging Jericho out of the muck. Gal Gadot shows glimpses of emotional range that we haven’t seen much of from her on screen yet. Sure, she’s quick to accept that this incoherent, rambling older man she finds bleeding in her basement is truly a convict with her husband’s memories stuffed in his brain, but that’s the fault of the script, not the performer.
Visually, Criminal is largely unremarkable. There are attempts to ape the handheld verite-style of the Bourne movies, complete with high-tech rooms full of CIA analysts lit by the blue light of their compute screens, and hazy snippets of flashbacks and memories in Jericho’s head. A droning, pulsing electronic score further underscores the aesthetic the filmmakers are after, but this is a pale imitation of the Matt Damon-starring spy franchise at best. [Grade: C]