Directed by Ariel Vromen
Written by Douglas Cook & David Weisberg
Late winter and early spring is often the graveyard for promising projects gone awry and any other host of bad movies. Sure, it also exists as a time and a place for promising, ambitious independent projects too, but more often than not, we are forced to pick the lesser of two evils while at the cinema deciding which movie to see on a Saturday night, especially after all the Oscar films have left theaters, and we’ve already seen the two or three interesting early season releases. It can be “slim pickins'”, as they say. But not too often do these films feature a cast as startling star studded as Criminal. While many of its stars may be past their prime, their names still carry weight and a certain expectation of entertainment value, and even an expectation their films will at the very least be interesting.
In Criminal, I’m not sure I can say it was entertaining, in the traditional sense, but it’d be hard to argue that the premise is anything less than interesting. A CIA agent, Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds), has been tasked with bringing in a Dutch developer, The Dutchman (Michael Pitt), who has developed a “wormhole” into the program that controls all of America’s defense operations. However, Pope is compromised by a Spanish anarchist, Heimbahl (Jordi Molla). Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), Pope’s boss, is then forced to try a doctor’s (Tommy Lee Jones) experimental surgery to implant someone’s memories into another’s brain on the only viable candidate, an amoral criminal named Jericho (Kevin Costner), in order for the CIA to find the whereabouts of The Dutchman and get to him before the anarchists can steal the wormhole and create mass hysteria all over the world. But once Jericho escapes following the surgery, the CIA is racing against time to find not just The Dutchman, but Jericho as well.
Now, in my defense, I called the premise “interesting”, I did not say that it was plausible. However, let’s, for the purpose of this review, assume the type of surgery performed on Jericho in this film is plausible (it isn’t) and take it from there. The rest of the film is not plausible. What starts as a pretty entertaining and promising idea for a spy thriller turns into a mess of a film where stupid character make stupid decisions and end up doing stupid things, which is inexcusable, no matter how outlandish the premise of the film. The CIA is depicted, inadvertently, as being incapable of completing their job. The main crux of the film is that Jericho, who before had no moral compass and was a dangerous criminal, now partially has Bill Pope’s mind in his own, exhibiting traits of both characters at different times. He is volatile to say the least. It would seem to reason the CIA would be on the look out for Jericho, but on more than one occasion, he comes and goes from Pope’s late wife’s (Gal Gadot) house using THE FRONT DOOR! It amazes me that the CIA would not have posted someone there permanently, especially after the first encounter between Jericho and Pope’s wife and kid was so traumatic. These are the types of plot “holes” that happen continuously throughout the film.
But I think what is even more offensive is not just the waste of acting talent of Michael Pitt, buried in the screenplay as The Dutchman, hardly getting any screen time, but the fact that his story seems much more interesting and we get no background on his motivations or where he came from, same with the Spanish anarchists. The movie decides, instead, to focus on the moral transformation of Jericho under the auspices of Pope’s psyche, which works as a compelling enough character study, even if it doesn’t ever get anywhere or manage to say anything interesting on the subject. The main driving factor is the threat, not of Jericho’s deteriorating morals as Pope, but the threat of the wormhole falling into the hands of Heimbahl. The filmmakers, however, seem to see it as the other way around and as a result miss out on plenty of opportunity to craft a smart, thrilling spy film with great action set pieces. They settle for a sub-par character study.
Criminal is definitely a squirm-worthy film. Seeing some of the stupidity unfold on screen quickly commenced the face-palming, seat-squirming instincts I’ve learned over the years. What is such a shame is seeing all these very capable actors in such a poor film. Costner mumbles and grumbles like he hasn’t acted in years, though I know he is capable of so much more. Perhaps his time has passed as a star of the screen. Gary Oldman on the other hand is still a capable actor, but his character, Quaker Wells, is a caricature as written by the screenwriters. Other actors disappear in the film, like I mentioned with Michael Pitt. The same can be said of Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Reynolds (which why is Bill Pope Ryan Reynolds?) and Alice Eve. Gal Gadot is the lone bright spot in the film, delivering charisma every time she graces the screen. Criminal is an unmitigated mess of a film, not worthy of its cast.