“They messed with my brain…” Opening with a line that comically (rather than ominously) portends the mind-swapping element of the premise, “Criminal” proceeds to show a clip from the climax before circling back around to the beginning. It’s the most overused way to start a movie, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers, who also notably christened their project with a terribly bland title. The real shame, despite so many tiresome routines, is that there’s a wealth of unrealized potential in what follows.
CIA Intelligence Agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) hustles through the streets of London, hoping to elude the henchmen (and uncommonly sexy henchwoman Elsa Mueller, played by Antje Traue, clad in black leather and uncomfortably high heels) of Spanish anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla). Impassioned with the notion of toppling all established governments, Xavier needs to track down Jan Strook, a.k.a. the “Dutchman” (Michael Pitt), a young hacker who has taken control of the U.S. military’s defense systems. But Pope has arranged for Strook to flee the country in exchange for his “Wormhole” governance program (safely stored on an unencrypted, plug-and-play flash drive).
When Heimdahl catches up with Pope, the agent is killed, leaving the CIA’s head of operations Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) to call in controversial Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones). Though he’s still five years away from human trials, it’s imperative that Franks uses his inexplicably advanced surgical technologies to implant Pope’s memories into the brain of a suitable candidate. And that subject is Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man locked away in prison for most of his life due to specific damage caused to his frontal lobe during childhood (leaving him with a total lack of empathy and an inability to determine right from wrong).
It’s actually not a memory transfer. It’s a memory duplication, which is marginally successful a few brain drillings later. Regardless, the movie takes too long to get going. Especially for an actioner and still noticeably for a basic thriller, “Criminal” meanders with its setup, going through the effort to film Pope’s capture, his torture, Stewart’s confinement, the recollection replication process, and finally the orientation time – before finally getting into the adventure. Sadly, for Reynolds fans, he’s not the star. But then neither are the smattering of Academy Award-winning supporting players, all disappointingly underused. Gary Oldman struggles with his generic dialogue, Alice Eve is little more than a background agent, Tommy Lee Jones disappears for most of the film, and even a recognizable character actor like Robert Davi is hard to spot. But Gal Gadot is in the most unfortunate position, scripted to readily accept Jericho as a replacement for Bill – not long after she’s potentially threatened with rape and even the slaughter of her child. And her traumatic experiences don’t prevent her from allowing that same young daughter (Lara Decaro) to interact with Jericho as if he was her father.
Nevertheless, there’s something fascinating about the idea of an irredeemable sociopath getting an opportunity to grapple with emotions for the first time, or an adept terrorizer gaining and then slowly losing his ability to stave off the desire for destruction. This, of course, anticipates a tense, bloodthirstily satisfying showdown with the completely evil villain – which doesn’t quite happen. As Kevin Costner endeavors to be an action hero (evident through his previous turn in “3 Days to Kill”), or a Jason Bourne spook of sorts without the martial arts prowess, he’s immersed in a story that, surprisingly, possesses an ample helping of engaging possibilities. There’s not just a good movie but a great one buried deep within this mess of espionage cliches, though it’s too far from the surface for most viewers to comprehend.