'Criminal': Film Review

Only Costner escapes unscathed.

Kevin Costner and Ryan Reynolds star in a tale that centers on old-fashioned Cold War-style conflict.

The crass spirit of 1980s Cannon Films is paid knowing homage by faithful step-child Millennium Films in Criminal, a staggeringly far-fetched carnival of action from which a beaten, battered and rebrained Kevin Costner emerges very much bloodied but unbowed. The leading man aside, a fine cast is thoroughly wasted in a tale that centers on old-fashioned Cold War-style conflict rather than the sort of terrorist drama that's more pertinent today. The high-endish Expendables-worthy names and nearly constant violence will assure a measure of domestic business for Lionsgate, even if considerably more revenue will flow from overseas markets.

Centered on a quasi-Frankenstein concept updated to the high-tech spy world, the script by the late Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock) hinges on a premise sufficiently far-fetched that you're forced to think long and hard about whether to buy it or not — that the critical information held in the head of a gunned-down London-based CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) could be transferred, post mortem, into the noggin of loony wild man and death-row prisoner Jerico Stewart (Costner). The latter, the thinking goes, might then be able to save the world from a wayward hacker named The Dutchman (Michael Pitt), who has wormed his way into the central nervous system of U.S. military technology.

But even if you've allowed yourself to hope that the redoubtable actors might tilt the proceedings in a positive direction, almost every choice made by director Ariel Vromen, whose last film was the half-good The Iceman, sends Criminal spiraling toward overwrought silliness, as Jerico careens through a city he doesn't know picking fights, creating mayhem and experiencing painful memory surges that make him ever more unruly.

An opening chase all over and under London — in which American spy Bill Pope (Reynolds) totes an all-important black handbag to deliver to The Dutchman while being pursued by amoral anarchist Heimdahl (Jordi Molla) and his remorseless henchwoman Elsa (Antje Traue) — has zip, speed and a startling conclusion that takes a big star out of a film in possible record time.

Desperate to retain knowledge about The Dutchman that only Pope possessed, London CIA boss Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) leans on misfit neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to perform radical surgery to keep Pope's information alive by shifting it over to the receptively empty cranium of inmate Jerico.

As soon as Jerico wakes up, the film starts veering off course in ways that, at first, are more a matter of misguided tone and judgment than of far-fetched plotting. Right off the bat, when he's not hearing what he wants to know from Jerico, Oldman's intelligence chief starts yelling at the man (with a low-class New Yawk accent, yet) in an obnoxious way that seems guaranteed to be unproductive; from such a good actor, this performance seems entirely misdirected and inauthentic for a figure requiring maximum shrewdness and smarts. And once his character has served his purpose, Jones' medic has little to do besides helplessly witness the fruits of his brilliance with a hangdog look.

In short order, it also becomes clear that the villains Heimdahl and Dutchman will remain one-dimensional, standard-issue bad guys, devoid of affiliations or defining ideologies, which is an approach without resonance in this newly dangerous age of resurgent, previously dormant belief systems. As these guys gain more screen time, especially in the final half-hour, the pro forma malefactors come to feel like woefully undeveloped stock figures of a sort that have everything to do with bad movies and nothing to do with real life.

What remains are abundant doses of slam-bang action, much of it involving Jerico recklessly careening along London-area streets and roads, as if Vromen were auditioning to direct an upcoming Fast and Furious installment, and Costner's performance, which is the film's one continuing source of legitimate interest. Rough and gruff, Jerico remains an unpredictable mad beast for a good long time, and Costner is obviously having a very good time playing a thoroughly uncivilized creature who takes pleasure in causing others grief, or at least giving them a broken nose or bashed-in teeth.

The character and the performance become increasingly interesting as the monster develops a conscience, which is most palpably felt via his progressively clear and frequent memory flashes centering on Pope's wife Jill (Gal Gadot) and daughter Emma (Lara DeCaro). At the same time, the wife and child quickly come to register strong connections with the man once he expresses emotional memories that only their husband/father can have had, even though the physical vessel for those feelings is entirely different. These scenes come too late, and are too incidental, to save the pic, but the suggestiveness of these intimate moments and the sensitive work of Costner and Gadot nonetheless serve as a welcome respite from the nonsense enshrouding them.

Silly, far too convenient plot contrivances ensure that the history of Western civilization will continue when all is said and done. The ever-present electronic score wraps the proceedings in a cheaply melodramatic musical veil.

Distributor: Lionsgate
Production: Summit Entertainment, Millennium Films, Benderspink, Campbell Grobman Films
Cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Reynolds, Alice Eve, Gal Gadot, Michael Pitt, Jordi Molla, Antje Traue, Scott Adkins, Amaury Nolasco, Danny Webb, Colin Salmon, Lara DeCaro
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenwriters: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Producers: J.C. Spink, Jake Weiner, Matt O'Toole, Mark Gill, Christa Campbell
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Lati Grobman, Douglas Urbanski, Jason Bloom, Kevin King-Templeton, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson, Christine Otal
Director of photography: Dana Gonzales
Production designer: Jon Henson
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: Danny Rafic
Music: Brian Tyler, Keith Power
Casting: Elaine Grainger

Rated R, 113 minutes