Culture

Criminal: A Mind-Scratching Thrill Ride

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How would a violent criminal devoid of conscience become an compassionate husband, father, and hero? What does it mean for a man to become wholly good when he had previously been lacking in nearly every good thing?

Amid car chases and shoot-outs through London, science fiction experiments on the human brain, and cyber secrets threatening the very foundation of global order, Criminal remains narrowly focused on one man’s journey  from psychopath to family man. Unfortunately, it is less about what it means to be a hero and more about Kevin Costner’s fantastic acting, which overshadows nearly every other member of the film’s all-star cast.

Criminal comes out this weekend, and it is likely to make money, but become largely forgettable. While some have criticized the “Cold War style” of the film, its true weaknesses lie in plot and character development — for everyone besides the film’s hero.

The movie features Gal Godot (best known for the Fast & Furious franchise, but also as Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman), Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, 2016, and The Proposal, 2009), Gary Oldman (an absolutely fantastic Officer Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy), and Tommy Lee Jones (No Country For Old Men, 2007, and the Men in Black trilogy). These big names get very little screen time, and even less development. It is truly a horrific waste of talent, as each of their characters would have provided fertile ground for storytelling.

Even worse, the film wastes two fascinating villains as well. Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi MollàBad Boys II, 2003) is an international cyber-terrorist, bent on overthrowing the world order. A mix between Julian Assange and Bernie Sanders, Heimbahl seeks to end corruption by destabilizing political regimes. Unfortunately, this is essentially all we learn about him.

Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt), a.k.a. “The Dutchman,” has discovered a way to hack into the U.S. military’s command and control center using the internet. Heimbahl and the CIA focus their efforts on capturing Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds), the last man to have contacted Stroop, in order to figure out where the Dutchman is and how to usurp his technology.

In the film’s opening act, Heimbahl and the CIA chase Pope through London. After an intense car chase, a bloody shoot-out, and some keen cyber trickery, Heimbahl captures the CIA agent, but fails to break him with torture techniques. The terrorist kills the agent, and escapes before the CIA can catch up.

Desperate to discover the Dutchman’s location, CIA London Director Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) asks Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) if there is any way to save Pope’s memories. Franks says yes, and convinces Wells to use the psychopath criminal Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner). Stewart is reckless and emotionless, with a mind rendered undeveloped by a debilitating brain injury in early childhood. This makes him the perfect test subject.

In order to keep a firm focus on action, Criminal indulges in sloppy plot decisions. Wells gives up on Stewart in a few minutes, showing none of the tact and patience required in a CIA director. Franks is a bit more nuanced, but still largely allows Stewart to dictate the terms of any continuing treatment. Using his own cold calculation, and the budding memories of Pope, Stewart is able to muscle his way through any situation.

Stewart’s character growth comes as a hilarious sideshow to the blunt and disturbing action sequences. Crude statements like, “That’s right, I do math now, I speak languages, I’m brand new,” and funny weaknesses like an inability to open a pill box because it’s “child proof,” form a constant theme of laughter throughout a largely dark and engrossing film.

Next Page: More humor, blunt action, and a beautiful transition

At one point, the man complains that he has started to care about things, declaring, “it’s messing me up!” Franks responds, “it’s helpful, it’s called emotions.” After treating someone rudely, Stewart says, “Cheers!” Then he has a double-take, “who the f*** says cheers?!”

Ultimately, the character transition from psychopath to hero — while a bit forced by plot contrivances — gives the film its greatest success. The other elements leave a great deal to be desired.

The action is dark and blunt — no blood or gore, but many hard hits with unlikely objects, such as smashing a person’s head in with a table lamp. Criminal portrays the kind of careless but calculated killing a man without a conscience would be capable of, and it is chilling.

But the film also portrays a beautiful transition. The man without feelings discovers what it means to love, and that is truly remarkable. A few moving scenes with Pope’s daughter really bring the raw emotion to life, although even her loving acceptance of the man with her father’s memories is rather undeveloped and makes little sense.

Criminal is a run-of-the-mill spy action film with a fascinating premise and an emotional pay-off. The violence is gruesome, the action riveting, the character transition compelling. The thriller leaves much to be desired, but can boast one fundamental achievement — it brings a complex character to vibrant life. If that sounds fascinating to you, go catch it this weekend.

Here’s the trailer.