Criminal (U.K./U.S., 2016)

April 16, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Criminal Poster

Criminal is an action-thriller with a science fiction twist. To the extent that its purpose is to energize and involve an audience, it succeeds. The premise, however, which involves transplanting the memories of a dead man into the mind of a living one, is underutilized. The movie doesn’t venture into esoteric or philosophical territory. It doesn’t examine the ethics of attempting this nor does it explore any deeper implications of what happens when a mind is occupied by two radically different personalities. However, as a race-against-time, Jason Bourne-inspired adrenaline cocktail, Criminal offers a couple of hours of popcorn-munching entertainment.

Kevin Costner, who has recently resumed his career after more than a decade flying under the radar, plays Jericho Stewart, the titular character. As a result of an underdeveloped frontal lobe, Jericho has no sense of right or wrong and this has led him to do some very bad things. He is flagged as a good fit for an untested experiment being run by Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) that involves transplanting memories. CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) was murdered in the field with key knowledge that the Agency needs to avoid a worldwide catastrophe, so honcho Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) pressures Franks into performing the operation. Jericho emerges from the anesthesia with a headache, fragmented memories he can’t put into place, and a bad temper. After dismissing the experiment as a failure, Wells commands some underlings to “take out the trash.” Before they can dispose of Jericho, however, he kills them and goes into hiding at Pope’s house - terrifying the dead man’s wife (Gal Gadot) and daughter. Meanwhile, a terrorist who goes by the name of The Anarchist (Jordi Molla) also wants Jericho’s knowledge, so the fugitive becomes the target of two manhunts - one by the CIA and one by the bad guys. At times, things get a little silly but that never prevented viewers from enjoying any of the James Bond movies, many of which were more farfetched than Criminal.

The movie isn’t pure violence and explosions. The emotional component is effectively handled. As Pope’s memories fall into place in Jericho’s mind, the criminal finds himself experiencing feelings for “his” wife and daughter. Some scenes of this grizzled, broken man interacting with a conflicted woman and innocent daughter recall moments from Frankenstein and provide viewers a means of connecting with the character. They don’t last long because there’s a rule in thrillers about how many minutes can pass without an action scene, but they convey the point that Jericho is a changed man. Of course, he’s still capable of violence and mayhem - as we see shortly thereafter.

Despite the B-movie story, director Ariel Vromen has assembled a surprisingly high-profile cast. By coincidence or intent, most of the actors appearing in Criminal have had roles in superhero films: Costner (Man of Steel and Batman v Superman), Gal Gadot (Batman v Superman), Gary Oldman (Batman Begins and the two sequels), Tommy Lee Jones (Batman Forever), and Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool). Costner shows more grit and range than he has displayed in a long time (if ever). During the heyday of his career, the actor was often regarded as one-dimensional; here, he shows that the passage of years may have enhanced his craft. Gadot is good in a role that requires a fair degree of emotional complexity; she does a lot more with Jill than one might expect based on the screenplay. Gary Oldman is disappointingly over-the-top and cartoonish and Tommy Lee Jones phones it in. Jordi Molla is a sufficiently vicious antagonist modeled after a long line of 007 megalomaniacs, and his Anarchist comes complete with a henchwoman. Ryan Reynolds has so little screen time that it’s easy to forget he’s in the movie. (Curiously, this is Reynolds’ second movie involving a personality transplant. His previous one, Self/less, is understandably forgotten.)

Criminal is a curious hybrid that may have trouble finding an audience. It’s arguably too complicated to find favor with those who see action thrillers as a means of disconnecting their brains. And its treatment of more interesting elements is handled in a haphazard manner that will alienate science fiction fans and those looking for a sophisticated approach to the ideas. However, although not of “summer quality” when it comes to spectacle, Criminal contains enough worthy material to hold a viewer’s attention for its full 113 minutes. It’s not great cinema but it’s good enough.

Criminal (U.K./U.S., 2016)

Director: Ariel Vromen
Cast: Kevin Costner, Gal Gadot, Gary Oldman, Jordi Molla, Ryan Reynolds, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Pitt, Antje Traue
Home Release Date: 2016-07-26
Screenplay: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Cinematography: Dana Gonzales
Music: Keith Power, Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2016-04-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1