Criminal sounds like a Luc Besson movie. It is disappointing that it isn’t. Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) is a convicted felon with an underdeveloped frontal lobe. This condition makes him unable to feel emotion, but it also makes him the perfect candidate for an experimental procedure. The CIA flies him to London and implants him with the memories of Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds), a deceased agent with vital information concerning a missing hacker who is key to preventing a mad anarchist's plot. Unfortunately for the CIA, Jericho escapes before telling them anything. The criminal walks the streets of London, struggling to deal with Bill Pope's memories in his head, and learning to use a whole new set of skills.
The core concept, as silly as it is, provides much of the appeal of this film. Everything surrounding it is kind of a mass, but there is dramatic merit to watching the lead character deal with his new status quo. The movie barrels through the shaky science, and finds something intriguing in the struggle of a violent, dangerous man who has never known emotion dealing with thoughts and experiences of somebody else. The initial scenes of him out and about in London, wreaking havoc and generally being awful to people, are the most fun bits of the movie.
But this is an action film, and here the film kind of falls apart. The movie, perhaps insecure about the silliness of its premise, provides an overcompensating, overstuffed plot with many moving parts. There is the Spanish anarchist that serves as the primary villain. There is the Dutch hacker that has gone missing, and a program that lets one take control of America’s weapon systems. And there’s the London branch of the CIA, which is floundering following the death of Pope. Every time the film takes its attention away from the lead character, it spirals into irrelevance, providing nothing but the signifiers of something greater.
All of these other moving parts are basically distractions. There isn’t anything there, these side characters all acting irrationally against their own best interests for the sake of plot. Gary Oldman’s CIA director is insanely bad at his job, for example, which is basically what allows Jericho to get away and the villain to stay at large. The villain of the piece spends most of his time in the film behind a computer, hardly ever displaying a level of threat that could provide tension for the overarching action plot.
The action itself is underwhelming. The film tries to ape the bombast of a blockbuster, but clearly doesn’t the resources to do it. The film is better when it isn’t trying to be exciting, when it’s revealing the ugly, boring violence of which the main character is capable. To this end, Kevin Costner is quite great in this film. He’s really committed to the strangeness of the role, and delivers something quite memorable. This film features an incredibly overqualified cast in its fringes. It largely squanders the talents of Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones. It even casts cult action star Scott Adkins in a small role, but doesn’t take advantage of his martial arts ability.
Criminal, in the hands of someone like Luc Besson or his many protégés would likely have emerged as something terribly silly, but also terribly fun. It might have kept things simpler, and provided more memorable supporting characters. Kevin Costner gives this film a weirdly solid dramatic core, and finds the fun in all this insanity. But then you get into the nuts and bolts of the plot, and things become a lot less fun.