How can anyone pass up a Kevin Costner film where his character of Jerico Stewart reads like a combination of that in “Mr. Brooks” and “3 Days to Kill”? Then toss in Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman, Gal Gadot and Tommy Lee Jones with a script by David Weisberg and Douglas Cook and the directorial eye of Ariel Vromen who last brought us “The Iceman”. Quite simply, you can’t. A unique take on a CIA spy thriller with a Frankenstonian spin, “Criminal” is a hard hitting, tech-savvy, high octane adrenaline rush with underlying social and moral implications ripe for discussion.
Ryan Reynolds is CIA undercover operative Bill Pope. Tracking an informant known as “The Dutchman” who has accessed the means to take over the weaponry of the U.S. military’s Central Command, Pope is killed mid-operation. Problem is that no one knows where Pope was to meet The Dutchman and exactly how deep into the Dark Web his investigation went, something that infuriates the CIA’s London chief Quaker Wells, always ten steps behind and totally manic (a man who should be having a stroke any minute with the tantrums and hissy fits he throws). But there may be a way to learn all that Pope knew.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Franks has been working on cutting edge medical science that will take the synapses from one man’s brain and link them to that of another, thus transferring all memories. (Seems Japan has already been testing the procedure on humans while Franks has only been working with lab rats.) Wells wants to use Franks as his “Hail Mary” play and have him perform the operation on a man. For Franks, the subject must meet certain specifications. Enter Jerico Stewart, a sociopathic death row convict who suffered brain damage as a child, leaving him with no emotions. He is the ideal candidate.
Flying Franks, his team and a mobile hospital facility to London, Franks completes the surgery. However, rather than allow time for the synapses to start firing, Wells wants immediate results. When Jerico has no immediate connection or “memory” of Bill Pope or The Dutchman, Wells screams, yells and threatens Jerico – and Franks – as in Wells’ eyes, without Pope’s memories, the surgery was a failure. He orders Jerico killed. Realizing Jerico is in pain and still hoping for surgical success, Franks slips Jerico a pill to aid in his recovery which, it obviously does, as Jerico is soon employing al of Pope’s stealthy techniques to escape Wells and elude capture.
Trying to come to grips with Jerico’s own instincts and the memories and instincts of Pope, Jerico finds himself at Pope’s home, breaking in (although technically not as he remembers the security code), ready to rape Pope’s widow, but finding himself unable to harm her or daughter Emma.
Action intensifies as Jerico starts assimilating Pope’s memories and all the information pertaining to The Dutchman. But it’s not just visual memories Jerico now experiences, it’s the emotions of family and love, Pope’s family, that Jerico now feels, embraces and wants as his life. But there’s a catch. Dr. Franks believes that the synaptic connection will end within mere hours. And there’s someone besides Wells who is after Jerico and The Dutchman, someone who wants Jerico dead.
Costner is riveting, capturing both the intensity and confusion of a man battling the inner struggle of mind over mind. The emotional transformation we see take shape is touching and resonant as are the physical subtleties that Costner infuses into Jerico. We feel the urgency of not only the situation at hand, but Jerico’s own internal clock, unaware of how long he may continue to “feel”.
Nostalgia buffs will thrill to see Gary Oldman, Costner and Tommy Lee Jones on the same bill for the first time since “JFK”. Oldman is a scream with his performance, as Wells actually provides much comedic relief with a frenetic and frenzied take on Quaker Wells. As Dr. Franks, Jones plays against type with a vulnerability that is refreshing and human.
Not to be overlooked is Ryan Reynolds. Although only on screen in the first 15-20 minutes of the film and then seen through flashbacks, Reynolds is our introduction to story. He sets the tone both as a family man on the phone with his wife, and as a super spy, taking us on his journey through London eluding those after him while he tries to get to The Dutchman. One of director Vromen’s strongest sequences is this set-up and the cat-and-mouse game Reynolds gets to play.
Joining in the mix is a once again unrecognizable Michael Pitt who mesmerizes as The Dutchman. And one look at a pre-Wonder Woman Gal Gadot as Jill Pope and you’ll see why she won the casting lottery as the much anticipated “Wonder Woman”. She exudes a sexuality and a grounding warmth that is inviting. Some key scenes between Costner and Gadot are so thick with tension you can cut the it with a knife. It bears mentioning that as we have seen in so many films over the past few years with Costner, his chemistry with child actors is stellar and here is no different as he enchants with Lara Decaro as Emma. And be on the lookout for Scott Adkins as CIA Agent Pete Greensleeves. A rather subdued, buttoned up role for Adkins given he is known for his work kn action films, he is nevertheless a fine addition to the cast.
Influenced by the works of futurist Ray Kurzweil, scribes Weisberg and Cook (who penned the Tommy Lee Jones vehicle “Double Jeopardy”) take it a step further with a nod to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in its conceptualization. Thanks to extensive research into the science being conducted today into not only artificial intelligence, but neurosurgery and memory transference, Weisberg and Cook bring the film and the audience to the cutting edge of scientific discovery while showcasing the potential ramifications of man’s inner struggle of mind over mind, while grounding the story – and Jerico – in humanity.
Kudos to Ariel Vromen for his attention to detail, particularly with the futuristic science of the film, and notably, the surgical procedure. An actual surgical theatre and equipment utilized for a procedure such as that performed plus a neurosurgeon as consult, provides moments of edge-of-your-seat pins and needles. A multitude of chase scenes – and bloody violence – takes place via large set-pieces throughout a less familiar looking London, something at which Vromen excels, intercutting action and Dana Gonzales’ sharp handheld lensing with Danny Rafic’s rapier editing between the real world/action/CCTV feeds/Jerico memories, giving grit and texture to the visual grammar.
Standout are the visual parallels with exterior explosions, frenzy and chaos that mirror the fiery explosions and frenzy within Jerico’s mind. Vromen does a superb job of immersing the audience in Jerico’s mindset thanks to the visual construct. Countering the saturation and intensity of the present day are the soft, sun-drenched flashbacks of Bill Pope’s world, which begin askew at various angles and varying degrees of blur, but become clearer and more vivid as the memories assimilate within Jerico. Some beautiful montages that serve as a summation of memories. Rounding out the visuals is Jon Henson’s production design which is eclectic and telling as world collides.
Are there moments of confusion? Absolutely. And while typically that would detract from the film, here it works to its advantage and the mind of Jerico Stewart.
Directed by Ariel Vromen
Written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg
Cast: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman, Gal Gadot