Directed by Ariel Vromen
Written by Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
113 minutes, rated MA 15+
Criminal is about a man with no empathy, no scruples, no emotion. After watching it, that felt like a description of the film-makers.
Mindless violence is one thing: cruel, stupid, random mindless violence against strangers for the enjoyment of a knuckle-dragging audience is another. When did movie violence become so nasty and pointless?
A long time back, if I am honest. I remember a leap around 1985, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was slicing the tops off people’s heads in Raw Deal and Sly Stallone went from punching faces to automatic weapons in Cobra (1986). Of course, Clint Eastwood killed with magnum force a lot earlier in Dirty Harry (1971), showing the way. One difference between then and now is that these were law and order movies: society was ‘out of control’ and these lawmen acted as judge, jury and executioner. Keeping us safe against the scum, in their parlance.
The random violence in Criminal is shared around. Everyone is as nasty as each other: the scum now wear ties and work for governments. Kevin Costner is Jericho Stewart, who at least has an excuse. His daddy threw him out of a car when he was a baby, explains Tommy Lee Jones, playing Dr Franks, an experimental neuro-scientist. Jericho has no empathy, no emotions, no remorse, which is why he is banged up in maximum security. The doctor has found a way to transplant memories from a dead person to a live one.
This comes in useful when CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is tortured to death in London before he can impart the location of a super-hacker known as The Dutchman. Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt) has stolen the digital keys to US missile command, explains Gary Oldman, as the CIA London station chief Quaker Wells. He needs to know what Pope knew before he was killed by the henchmen of international anarchist gangster Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla). That’s why they hook up Pope’s lifeless body to Jericho’s lifeless brain and zap them with an updated version of Dr Frankenstein’s life-giving friend, electricity.
Here’s a plausible description of how this script might have been put together, although it might not have been the writers who made these choices. The memory plot is older than Jason Bourne but he brought it back, big time. The terrorists who want to steal missiles is standard James Bond, but serviceable if you come up a twist, like a protagonist with no emotions who gets those of another man. Add the luscious Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving wife and Jericho can now definitely feel something. It’s more science fiction than usual for a thriller, but that worked in spectacular fashion in The Terminator.
The casting is a little harder to explain. Why bring in Ryan Reynolds, who’s hotter than a ‘Carolina Reaper’ chilli right now (they’re the hottest in the world), then kill him off in the first reel? Costner is not as bankable as he was and Tommy Lee Jones is so laughably cast that you wonder what possessed him to join such a routine thriller. On the other hand, if you’ve got Reynolds, Costner and Oldman, the package might have seemed attractive.
It’s not. Israeli director Ariel Vromen makes sure of that, with dispiriting adherence to the Big, Loud and Stupid playbook. Every few minutes, a fight, usually fatal; every other few minutes, a car chase. Every 15 minutes – because they cost a lot – a spectacular stunt like driving a London cab off a bridge into the Thames, with Jericho inside. For the mushy bits, take Jericho back to Pope’s house where he can look pained and confused as he eyes off another man’s wife and child, while feeling things he has never felt.
The film might have worked with a different approach. It’s no crime to put a script together by the numbers, if you can bring some truth to the emotions, some reality to the twists and turns. Vromen does neither, but someone else might have. It is a crime to use great actors this badly, for such low purposes. Violence is a powerful tool in cinema. It’s like the aforementioned chilli: handle with care. Criminal is anything but careful. It’s lazy, corrupt and sleazy film-making, the kind of film that’s killing the business.