A film review by Craig J. Koban April 23, 2016


2016, R, 113 mins.


Kevin Costner as Jericho Stewart  /  Ryan Reynolds as Bill Pope  /  Gary Oldman as Quaker Wells  /  Tommy Lee Jones as Dr. Franks  /  Gal Gadot as Jill Pope  /  Alice Eve as Marta Lynch  /  Scott Adkins as Pete Greensleeves  /  Michael Pitt as Jan Stroop  

Directed by Ariel Vromen  /  Written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg



A funny thing happened to me about 20 minutes into watching the new action/espionage thriller CRIMINAL. 

It soon dawned on me that the rather impeccably assembled cast in the film have all been in super hero films from Marvel and DC.  Doing some quick witted mental gymnastics, I realized that CRIMINAL stars Commissioner Gordon, Two Face, Deadpool, Jonathan Kent, Wonder Woman, and Faora-UI.  That’s actually pretty cool.  Unfortunately, it was also at this precise point during my screening when I also began to realize that I simply didn’t care about anything that was happening in CRIMINAL beyond the cast’s comic book movie connections.  

That’s not a good sign at all. 

CRIMINAL is a movie that’s desperately trying to be so many different types of movies that it ultimately forgets to simply be a good…movie.  It’s part action film, part spy thriller, part high concept/far fetched science fiction, part morality play, and all parts muddled and confusing.  The fact that it contains established and revered professionals with innumerable Oscar wins and nominations between them is all the more depressing considering the end result.  Perhaps ever sadder is the fact that the highly competent Israeli-born Ariel Vromen - whom a few years ago made one of the best films of 2012 in fact-based hitman drama THE ICEMAN, - directs CRIMINAL without displaying much aptitude for narrative focus, character dynamics, and action beats.  The resulting film is so egregiously all over the place that I began to wonder by the time the end credits rolled by whether or not Vromen was just half-heartedly invested in the proceedings to collect a hearty paycheck and move on. 



CRIMINAL’s opening sequences are arguably its most enthralling, but it pretty much qualitatively snowballs down from there.  London based CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, in a role that’s a borderline cameo and yet inexcusably prominent in all advertising materials for this film) finds himself embroiled with Dutch hacker Jan “The Dutchman” Stroop (Michael Pitt), a man that has a dangerous wormhole-like program that would prove dangerous in the wrong, nefarious hands.  Pope smuggles the Dutchman away as part of an agreement that will give the hacker a new identity and millions of dollars if he coughs up the program to Feds.  Unfortunately, Pope is tagged by Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Molla), a fanatical Spanish businessman that unleashes his minions on Pope and ambushes him before he can successfully finish his deal with the Dutchman.  With Pope dead and out of the picture, bureau chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) tries to piece together what’s left of Pope’s failed mission. 

Hope, alas, is not lost, as Wells has a rather ingenious – but wholeheartedly implausible – trick up his sleeve to secure vital Intel that’s still trapped in Pope’s mind.  Wells secures brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), a cutting edge scientist that has successfully migrated memories from one brain to another…but only in lab rats and without any human trials.  With time not on their sides, Wells forces Franks to transfer Pope’s memories (his brain has been electrically kept alive) and transfer them to the only other human host that neurologically (at least as far as this film explains) can accept the transfer, a violent and imprisoned sadist named Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).  You see, his frontal lobes have left him incapable of feeling any kind of sympathetic emotions, which essentially allows for him to be the most appropriate guinea pig for Franks' procedure.  Rather disastrously, Jericho manages to escape custody after the surgery is performed…and then begins to see flashes of Pope’s memories, especially those of his wife (Gal Godot) and his daughter.  Predictably, things get extremely complicated for all. 

CRIMINAL is an extremely silly and nonsensical movie when it boils right down to it.  I have nothing inherently against goofy movies that require me to suspend my disbelief to limitlessly high levels.  Unfortunately, CRIMINAL treats its cockamamie premise about as morosely and seriously as a heart attack, all but eroding any sort of perverse fun one could have with such preposterous material.  Since the film takes the ultra solemn approach, it should have at least engaged in some thoughtful and philosophical commentary on the nature of transplanting memories from “good” man and into a “bad" man and all of the deeper implications that such a transformation brings.  Good science fiction films would ruminate on whether or not Dr. Franks' Frankenstein-ian (no subtlety with his name there at all) experiments are worthwhile and/or ethical at all.  Funny, but for a film that treats its premise seriously, it never once seriously investigates it at all. 

And whom exactly am I supposed to root for in this film?  Outside of Pope’s wife (played compassionately by BATMAN V SUPERMAN’s Gal Godot), there’s simply no one in CRIMINAL that deserves and earns my sympathy.  Gary Oldman’s chief wants to maliciously murder Jericho within minutes of Franks' surgery seemingly baring no instant results, which leaves him off my list of characters worthy of supporting.  Jericho himself is a real conundrum in the film.  I’ve always admired Kevin Costner as an actor that compensates for his lack of thespian range with his ability to instill in his characters a plainspoken, everyman-like earnestness that makes his performances feel so invitingly lived-in and authentic.  Even when the actor has played morally questionable characters in films as of late I’ve always found myself invested in them.  I don’t think that Costner has even been more toxically dislikeable in a film than he is here in CRIMINAL.  Jericho is a repellent and sociopathic a-hole that’s frustratingly played by Costner with a one-note and cartoonishly gravel voiced timber that suggests that he’s the love child of Christian Bale’s Batman and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.   When the film pathetically tries to provide Jericho with a redemptive character arc it rarely feels justified or earned.  He’s simply a brutally hostile and deranged thug that’s impossible to identify with on any tangible level, leaving CRIMINAL feeling hollow minded and dramatically inert. 

But this cast assembled...hot damn!  The trifecta of Costner, Jones, and Oldman, of course, all appeared together decades ago in Oliver Stone’s JFK, so the initial novelty of seeing them all assembled again on the silver screen is a giddy one, to be sure.  Mournfully, CRIMINAL’s ill-defined screenplay gives none of these actors anything of weight to work with.  Outside of Costner’s teeth gratingly obnoxious work here, Oldman obligatorily chews scenery by yelling and screaming a lot, hoping to make up for scripting deficiencies, whereas Jones appears so cold, distant, and distracted throughout the film that it comes across like he’s phoning it in because of some sort of contractual obligation that he visibly appears to have regretted while appearing on camera.   The only thing we are really left with are the film’s action sequences, which are messy, chaotic, and favors blood spewing gore over well orchestrated thrills.  You can tell when a director is really struggling with the material given in an action thriller when he clumsily falls back on numbing barbarism and carnage.   

CRIMINAL is a criminally wasteful effort for all involved.  It wastes the established talents of not only Vromen in front of the camera, but also of it’s remarkable cast of industry veterans in front on it.  With lesser stars, the resulting film would barely fit the moniker of a forgettable and disposable VOD effort.  CRIMINAL is the kind of pointless exercise that you won’t think about minutes after exiting the cinema, but it will make you think about the finer films its cast were in before it.  

That’s a big positive…I guess.    

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