Director: Ariel Vromen
Writer: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, Gal Gadot, Michael Pitt, Jordi Mollà, Ryan Reynolds, Antje Traue, Scott Adkins, Amaury Nolasco
Running Time: 113 min.
By Paul Bramhall
When not on duty in superhero movies, Commissioner Gordon, the father of Superman, Wonder Woman, Deadpool, and Weapon XI, got together in London to make Criminal. The above mesh-up of DC and Marvel luminaries is of course entirely fictional, but what Criminal does do is bring together the impressive cast of actors who play said characters in their respective movies – Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, and Scott Adkins. Throw the always reliable Tommy Lee Jones into the mix, and you realise that this is a movie with some serious acting talent on-board.
While Israeli born director Ariel Vromen only has a handful of titles under his belt, having directed just 3 full length features beginning with 2005’s Simple Lies, chances are it was the screenwriting pedigree of Douglas Cook and David Weisberg that attracted the stars to this particular production. Cook and Weisberg were responsible for the story and script behind 1996’s bombastic action flick The Rock, and also penned 1999’s Double Jeopardy, which also featured Tommy Lee Jones. However since then the screenwriting partners dropped off the map, and Criminal marks their first script in 16 years. Sadly it would also mark their final collaboration together, as Cook passed away in July 2015.
Criminal sees Ryan Reynolds furthering his attempts to corner the market of the ‘body swap’ genre. While 2015 saw him starring in Self/less, in which the brain of dying businessman Ben Kingsley is transferred into his body, here we experience the opposite, that see’s the brain of Reynolds’ murdered CIA agent being transferred into the body of Kevin Costner. If the pattern continues, then 2017 will likely feature a movie that has Costner’s brain being transferred into the body of an actor that’s played both sides of the superhero studios (Ben Affleck, we’re looking at you).
Criminal opens with Reynolds being pursued by shadowy figures through the streets of London. His CIA agent is delivering a ransom to a mysterious hacker who goes by the name of ‘The Dutchman’, that’s holding up in a location that only Reynolds knows. However when he’s intercepted and killed (his screen-time is comparable to Steven Seagal in Executive Decision), the CIA director (Gary Oldman) calls in a scientist (Tommy Lee Jones), who’s created an experimental procedure that can transfer memories from one human to another. Oldman is hell bent on finding the location of ‘The Dutchman’ before a crazy Spanish anarchist who wants to start World War III (yes you read that correctly), and a suitable candidate is found to absorb Reynolds’ memories in the form of Kevin Costner. Costner plays a violent redneck prisoner, chained up in solitary confinement due to being dropped as a child, which led to his frontal lobe not developing as it should. As a result, he can’t feel emotions, and enjoys beating people to a pulp. Basically, a dangerous guy, but one whose lack of frontal lobe development makes him the perfect candidate for a brain swap. Go figure.
In short, Criminal is a glorified B movie with a slumming it A list cast. From the moment Costner wakes up from the brain surgery, Oldman starts yelling at him a whole heap of exposition as to why he’s there and what he needs to remember. I could essentially copy and paste Oldman’s tirade here, and it would serve as an effective plot summary, but since I already took the effort to write the previous paragraph, I won’t. Indeed whenever Oldman is onscreen he’s at his scenery chewing best, spitting out the lines of the dubious script with a joyous reckless abandon, almost all of which involve him mentioning ‘The Dutchman’. “We need to find ‘The Dutchman’!”, “Lead us to ‘The Dutchman’!”, “Where is ‘The Dutchman’!?” He seems to be aware that the script is beneath him, so simply goes at it like a madman, all the while being followed around by another agent played by Scott Adkins, who gets a few lines here and there but little else.
Costner on the other hand seems genuinely dedicated to his role, and does his best to inject pathos into his performance, even when the script frequently works against him. The role was originally ear marked for Nicolas Cage, who it was reported turned it down, but it’s easy to imagine if he had accepted it what a completely different performance he would have brought to the character. As it is, Costner’s violent redneck is all grunts and twitches, capable only of monosyllabic communication and punching people in the face. However once he has Reynolds’ memories transferred into his brain, he begins to feel emotions for the first time, emotions such as love. Indeed it would be a fair comparison to say that his character follows much the same arc as Jet Li’s Danny the Dog in Unleashed, only instead of Morgan Freeman and watermelons, we have a bunch of memories and Gal Gadot.
Gadot plays Reynold’s widow, and her first encounter with Costner involves him in a home invasion, in which he covers her mouth with duct tape while she sleeps, wrapping her arms and legs with it to restrain her. It’s an uncomfortable scene, and he seems set to rape her, until Reynolds’ memories interfere and he can’t bring himself to do it, ultimately fleeing the scene. It’s somewhat of a massive leap in believability then, when 30 minutes later Gadot is inviting him to sleep on the couch in their house, and her and Reynolds’ daughter is giving him piano lessons (another replicated scene from Unleashed). Gadot urges him to get in touch with Reynolds’ memories of their wedding day and the birth of their daughter, and for the first time Costner’s frontal lobe allows him to experience the feeling of love, and he begins to learn that having feelings isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Costner’s character is best described as a mix of Danny the Dog meets Jason Bourne, but instead of being a Chinese kung fu fighter or a skilled assassin with no memory, we have a redneck with a heap of new memories. He suddenly finds himself able to speak French, and calmly shoot a group of attackers trying to kill him with a precision aim, while at the same time gradually coming to care about Gadot and her daughter. Despite his new found skills though, the way Vromen films them is sadly lacking in any kind of tension or excitement, with the action scenes frequently falling flat. There’s obligatory explosions, car chases, and even a random missile fired from a submarine just for good measure, but none of them come with any real sense of meaning or danger, resulting in it being an easy task to quickly lose interest.
Events culminate in a particularly generic finale which takes place on a runway, that sees all the characters converge in the one location, including Tommy Lee Jones, who’s spent every scene he’s appeared in looking and sounding terminally bored. What sticks out like a sore thumb in particular though, is how lost the script seems to be in terms of what the final outcome should be for Costner’s character. Lest we forget that without Reynolds’ memories, he was a death-row prisoner chained by the neck and ready to put the beat-down on anyone that got too close to him. Unsurprisingly events head in the direction of a happy ending, and when one of Oldman’s fellow agents asks him what he plans to do with Costner, Oldman declares that he’s going to offer him a job, a line which makes about as much sense as the whole brain swapping concept in the first place.
While actors like Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones are always entertaining no matter what production they appear in, Criminal does feel at times that it’s stretching this statement to its limit. For fans of British crime thrillers with a hint of science fiction thrown in, Vromen’s latest could definitely be worth a look, as for everyone else, stick with the stars classic movies. It would be ‘Criminal’ not to.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10