Aging actors are all about reinventing themselves lately, especially when it involves turning to gritty, low-to-mid-budget genre fare. While Liam Neeson has seemingly reinvigorated his whole persona when it comes to claiming this “mature” action hero status, Sean Penn and Pierce Brosnan both tried their hand at it over the last few years, with less than stellar results. Meanwhile, guys like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger never really vacated their thrones. Which brings us to Kevin Costner: No stranger to thrillers, he took a swing and whiffed with 3 Days to Kill, but he’s willing to give it another go with Criminal.
Sadly, again, the result is not great. By far, Criminal’s greatest asset is its cast, which features two Oscar winners—Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones—as well as an Academy Award nominee (Gary Oldman), two newly minted mega-superheroes in the form of Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), and Alice Eve and Michael Pitt, who are great actors in their own rights. This assembly of top tier talent, almost all of whom are completely mis- or under-used in every instance, has to be the sole reason why Criminal didn’t go directly to streaming services—which is, let’s be honest, where it belongs.
More than an action romp, director Ariel Vromen’s film is an attempt at a slow-burn, John La Carre-style spy thriller. Unfortunately, a disjointed tonal vibe, lack of any real character development and whack-ass dialogue keep it from even its modest aims. 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 (Gary 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 amounts to a sociopathic version of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Sling Blade, which Tommy Lee Jones’s character explains as the result of a childhood head trauma that left the convict’s brain developmentally stunted. Thus, 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 the hacker’s program falls into the wrong hands.
This is where Criminal stands tallest, when Jericho struggles with these unfamiliar feelings, but any shining moments are buried beneath an onslaught of tedium and the unnecessary complications that take precedence over character work and a narrative arc. And yes, this is yet another body-swap movie involving Ryan Reynolds. 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.) So there’s that.
As complicated as this plot may sound, Criminal becomes even more tangled and convoluted as it unfolds. In addition to the “we’re-all-going-to-die” thread, Pope’s memories—of his wife, Jill (Gadot), and daughter—poke through Jericho’s crotchety surface, haunting him. The Dutchman achieves brief subplot status while 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. Criminal is the kind of movie where the first time a person appears on screen, text pops up to deliver their name and a prominent character trait—which is where the character development stops. Without such text, we wouldn’t know that Heimbahl is a “Spanish Anarchist.” Even the half-baked science of trying to swap brains is explained away with a few sentences of authoritative-sounding jargon.
The pace plods along, always on the verge of an action set piece but never quite delivering. Which is a shame, because: Scott Adkins, one of the premier badass cinematic martial artists currently working, is in this movie. Though Adkins is far from alone 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, while 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. Gadot shows glimpses of emotional range that we haven’t seen much 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 who wouldn’t?
Visually, Criminal sometimes apes the handheld verite-style of the Bourne movies, complete with high-tech rooms full of CIA analysts lit by the blue light of their computer screens, and hazy snippets of flashbacks in Jericho’s head. A droning, pulsing electronic score further underscores the aesthetic the filmmakers are after. But, perhaps appropriately, the best they can do with this pale imitation of a spy action-thriller is only nothing more than pale imitating at best.
Director: Ariel Vromen
Writers: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Pitt, Alice Eve
Release Date: April 15, 2016