Shoddily directed Criminal is a poor imitation of the kind of movie they don't make anymore
Criminal Summit Entertainment
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenplay: Douglas Cook and David Weisberg
Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Gal Gadot, Tommy Lee Jones, Jordi Mollà, Michael Pitt, Alice Eve and Ryan Reynolds
Rated R / 1 hour, 53 minutes
April 15, 2016
(out of four)
If ever there were an ominous warning about a movie's quality, it is the one that appears atop the trivia section of IMDb's page for Criminal. It reads, in plain black and white: "Nicolas Cage turned down a lead role."
Look, as a Cage fan, I say this with all due respect. But if he, at this point in his career, is turning down your movie, that's not an especially promising sign. Dude said yes to Left Behind. Yet apparently Douglas Cook and David Weisberg's screenplay for Criminal didn't meet his exacting standards.
Or maybe he felt that the story - about a long-haired, grey-bearded criminal recruited from maximum-security solitary confinement for a top-secret mission by the very government that put him away - was too familiar to a movie he already made, The Rock, two decades ago. We'll give him that. In that respect, at least, the two films bear a real resemblance. And so it should come as no surprise that they were both penned by the same writing team. In having a screenplay produced for the first time this century, Cook and Weisberg re-worked certain elements of The Rock and gave it a sci-fi twist. In this case, the prisoner is called on less for his expertise than for his physical body - specifically his brain, which is used as a vessel for the implantation of the memories of a fallen field agent.
There's also, this time, no doubt about the main character's villainy. Unlike Sean Connery's misunderstood, misrepresented John Mason, Criminal's antihero is an unambiguous bad guy. He's a stone-cold psychopath named Jericho (Kevin Costner) who has no emotional or moral apparatus, and who only even begins to understand such concepts when the memories of Bill Pope* (Ryan Reynolds) begin to take hold in his mind, competing for control against Jericho's baser instincts. The government needs those memories - or one memory in particular, anyway - to locate a source who could be the key to stopping a bland cyberterrorist (Jordi Mollà) from unleashing a massive attack.
* I should like to believe that the character's name is a shout-out to the great cinematographer Bill Pope, but this movie is such a visual eyesore that such a reference would be a poor tribute.
They used to make movies like this. Thrillers, chasers, mid-budget actioners. We used to get them all the time. We had specialists - actors and directors we could count on to deliver this kind of thing, to really get it. Now, it seems the business is out of practice, and something like Criminal is an afterthought. The aforementioned connection to The Rock makes for its own self-contained point: twenty years ago, this exact script would have given us a summer blockbuster. A couple of A-listers; a director who could really toy with these ingredients and make the ideas fly; a support system designed to make sure it succeeds.
The relegation of this type of film to lower-budget, under-the-radar status isn't necessarily a bad thing in theory. But the results here speak for themselves. Director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) (that's the name of his previous movie, not a cool nickname I just gave him) has nothing to offer this material, no aesthetic to speak of. The most glaring thing about Criminal is how little personality it has. How can such a silly, pulpy premise be so dull?
Vromen is also an utterly inept director of action, his fights, shootouts and chases executed with flavorless handheld hackery, spliced together by editor Danny Rafic in a way that always shows us that something is happening on-screen even if it's never clear exactly what, or who, or how. These are the kinds of action scenes that demonstrate almost no understanding of their physical surroundings.
To Costner's credit, he gives a committed and spirited performance, despite being in the service of a script that rarely justifies its most absurd leaps in logic (a problem that could be at least somewhat mitigated if it were finessed by a filmmaker who embraced the looniness of this story instead of handling it like a generic, straightforward thriller). The most unforgivable stretch is Jericho's blossoming relationship with Bill Pope's family. The first time he shows up at their house - looking for clues to find a bag full of money and passports, a fractured image that keeps flashing through his mind - he ties up Bill's wife Jill (Gal Gadot), duct-tapes her mouth shut, puts his hand around her neck at one point and generally acts as physically threatening as a remorseless psychopath alone with a vulnerable woman in a bedroom can possibly act.
When Jericho once again appears at the house later on - this time in broad daylight, with 5-year-old daughter Emma bouncing around the house - Jill is initially taken aback and yet inexplicably warms to his presence once he kinda explains what's going on. Even with that explanation, it's not nearly enough to justify the way she keeps allowing him to stick around the house. Even less justifiable is the way the daughter gets instantly attached to Jericho - who, again, is still at least partially the violent killer who threatened her life just a few nights earlier - even to the point of seeing him as a pseudo father figure. You can see where the movie's trying to go with this, but it unfolds in ludicrously implausible fashion.
It makes for a distractingly clunky emotional hook, designed to make us care as Jericho navigates the varied factions descending upon him - the terrorist who's after him; the CIA boss (Gary Oldman, whose entire performance can be described as "panicked shouting") who wants what's in his head; the doctor (Tommy Lee Jones) who performed the experimental mind surgery on him in the first place and seems genuinely concerned for his well-being.
In other circumstances or another era, someone may have taken this premise and really run with it. Not to paint too rosy a picture of it, there were plenty of crappy movies like this even when Hollywood cared about making them. But now there are so few like it that Criminal feels like not only a failure but a palpable discouragement.