On the surface, Criminal is just another average, cliché riddled action movie. There’s not really an angle from which I can look at this movie without leading me to this conclusion. The line from A to B is, in this case, so straight that you don’t have to look hard to see what lays on the horizon; the movie doesn’t telegraph its intent so much as the map is already so well-traveled that it would be difficult not to know where it’s taking you.
That much is a given, and for many the sin of familiarity is too great to overcome. Yes, Criminal is average, clichéd, and predictable. However, it also happens to be exceedingly good at being average, clichéd, and predictable. It’s a film that requires little thought of its audience, but never tries to mask what it is or what it wants to be under pretentious guise. It wears its heart, loud and proud, right on its sleeve in full view of all who cross its path. The level of earnestness displayed by the movie, as dumb as it often is, is almost refreshing. Provided you have the ability to turn off your brain, shrug your shoulders, and just go with it, Criminal becomes an enjoyable, if not forgettable, distraction.
Kevin Costner is Jericho Stewart, a cold-blooded psychopath without empathy or remorse whose stunted frontal lobe apparently makes him a perfect candidate for a bizarre new memory transplant procedure (because of course it does). When CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed on the job, CIA boss Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) forces clinical researcher Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to implant the departed agent’s memories into Jericho’s brain so that the agency can find hacker Jan “The Dutchman” Stroop (Michael Pitt), who hacked control of the US military’s missile capabilities for Spanish anarchist Heimbahl (Jordi Molla) before deciding to defect, much to the chagrin of Heimbahl (sure, why not). Now, Jericho must locate the missing hacker before the billionaire Spanish anarchist finds him in order to make the world safe again (or whatever).
It’s a dumb, needlessly complex plot that manages to defy sense and reason at every turn. Sort of like an action movie is supposed to. Your enjoyment of the movie is entirely dependent upon your ability to just accept what it is at face value without questioning any of the ridiculous nonsense that happens to cross the screen. Admittedly, this is a tall order for some, as the ridiculous and the nonsense are both caked on thick enough to stop any of the countless bullets this movie shoots.
And yet, there’s a kind honesty about the movie that makes it sort of enjoyable. Criminal toys with the idea of playing around with Philip K. Dickian themes of identity and meaning, without laying it on so heavy that it loses its plebian demographic. As the movie progresses, Jericho struggles more and more with who he is—does his life as the uncaring psychopath trump his newfound empathy gained from Bill Pope’s memories?—but without any of that pesky philosophizing that hinders the route from one chaotic shootout to the next.
Costner seems to relish in the role and his fun translates into an enjoyable enough experience. The actor is just about due for a McConaughey-esque renaissance—a recostnerssance, if you will—and reinventing himself as a gruff and unstable psychopath is a decent enough place to start. Despite trite material, the actor reminds us all why we loved him in the first place. It’s not just his rugged good looks or his nice guy smile. No, beneath the surface level reasons for his former popularity remains a truth no one likes to discuss, really: Costner is a decent actor when he wants to be. It’s he who carries this movie, as his co-stars do little more than exist just enough to keep the plot moving in whatever predictable direction it decides to move.
The script, from writers Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (the duo responsible for The Rock, another mostly incomprehensible but also kind of fun endeavor) harkens back to the excessive highs of mid-90’s action, where concept and plot take precedence over depth and character. It does everything it needs to do with just enough panache to make it enjoyable, should you decide to enjoy it. It’s the kind of script that gives what it gets—expect it to be terrible and it will be; expect it to be fun and it will be. While the first act is sloppy and rushed, the film eventually finds its groove and allows its silly plot to do the rest.
There’s plenty I could nitpick, as the story is littered with more holes than an abandoned mine shaft, but why ruin the fun? No, this is a movie that doesn’t just invite but compels you turn the ol’ brain off and enjoy yourself for a couple of hours before promptly forgetting everything you just saw. I should probably hate, but I can’t really. It’s kind of too fun for that. Arguably, that’s all a movie really needs to be. So whatever, you know? If you can look past the movie’s many flaws, there are more than a few nuggets of enjoyability that make Criminal worth the ride, unnecessary though it might be.
Criminal is now playing in theaters everywhere.