4 out of 10
Kevin Costner as Jericho Stewart
Gal Gadot as Jill Pope
Tommy Lee Jones as Dr. Franks
Gary Oldman as Quaker Wells
Alice Eve as Marta Lynch
Michael Pitt as Jan Stroop
Jordi Mollà as Hagbardaka Heimbahl
Antje Traue as Elsa
Scott Adkins as Pete Greensleeves
Ryan Reynolds as Bill Pope
Directed by: Ariel Vromen
There was a time, not too long ago, when we could look forward to a summer filled with the adventures of men with very manly names – like Hauser or Geiger – doing very manly things, but whose sensitive inner life could always be reached by a child. For everything there is a season and much of this we can often look back with a sort of fond nostalgia if not actual appreciation, or we would if filmmakers actually stopped making them.
Like a Soviet bloc nation finally getting its hands on hair metal ten years after the fact, there remains a group of European filmmakers committed to keeping this form alive whether you want it or not. Though Luc Besson’s name appears nowhere in the credits for Criminal, you’d be forgiven looking for it as the film hews so closely to his particular style of Europeanized American action film, it could be considered a homage (or perhaps a satire).
The improbably-named Bill Pope (Reynolds) is one of the CIA’s best agents, which means he’s the point man in a dangerous operation to ferret out a hacker (Pitt), who has taken control of America’s nuclear arsenal. Or he was; unfortunately Bill Pope is dead, killed by the hacker’s lunatic anarchist billionaire partner (Mollà), who wants the codes himself so that he can save the world by blowing it up, like you do.
The CIA’s (apparently the only intelligence agency operating in London, England) one chance to stop him is to retrieve Pope’s memories by injecting them into another person. Not just anyone, but someone with a significant empty area in their frontal cortex so that they can contain the memories. Someone like convicted killer and felon Jericho Stewart (Costner), a sociopath with no impulse control or empathy due to a poorly-developed frontal lobe. Naturally, the perfect person to contain secret information about America’s nuclear codes.
Criminal is a bad film. The problem is not so much in it being bad as the willful way it is; it’s as if the filmmakers watched several decades of generic action movies, took stock of all their worst attributes and decided those were exactly what they wanted to replicate.
It’s a film showered in quick cuts, aggressive manliness and many close ups of actors staring at computer screens. Filled with characters named Jericho and Quaker, all said without anyone batting an eye and introduced by someone reading solemnly from a file, it shows just how completely some European filmmakers have subsumed the lessons of Hollywood and returned on us all the sins of our past.
Worse, though director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) has expertly cast his film, he’s done nothing with them. Forget thievery or nuclear extortion, what greater crime can there be than to put Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones in your film and then do nothing with them? Oldman is permanently attached to a walkie talkie, while Jones could be replaced by a lesser character actor without affect as he merely shows up from time to time to talk about how his memory treatment is humanizing Jericho.
Also following in the path of particularly Besson films, Jericho’s great redemption comes from children and family life. The memories of Bill Pope he has taken on not only cover his professional training or what he knew about his last case but all his thoughts and feelings about his wife (Gadot) an daughter, forcing unknown emotions on the confused Jericho for the first time in his life.
The meld between fast-paced techno thriller and hoary family film has seldom been successful and isn’t here. Costner is successful enough grunting out Stewart’s bile at the world but less so at playing piano with a pre-teen who naturally takes to the strange man who smells like garbage and shows up at her house. Gadot at least has been given more to do than many of her recent films but is ultimately left to stand in the background and wait for Jericho to save the day.
There have been worse action films made, and recently, but that’s scant praise. The set pieces are lifeless, the villain is forgettable – he spends most of his time ranting from computer screens – and the desperate search for emotional resonance feels exactly that: desperate.
As the age of action stars has gradually given way to the age of IP adaptations, we could at least hope that we’d be able to leave behind the worst excesses of old Hollywood action films, but apparently we’re not that lucky yet.
Just remember when you complain to your friends about the focus on superhero or toy films Hollywood is obsessed with making today – they could always go back to making stuff like this.