Oh to be a fly on the wall when Criminal was being pitched. In the imagination, it goes something like this: “It’s Awakenings—with guns!” Or maybe, “Remember Flowers for Algernon, that story about slow guy who becomes a genius, except there’s price. Well, this is that story, but with spies and terrorism. You know, a kind of Flowers for Algernon: This Time it’s for Real!” There’s also, in this ridiculous, heavy-handed action movie in which Kevin Costner is a stone-cold psychopath who becomes a CIA lab rat, a little of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the “futuristic” thriller co-penned by her ex James Cameron, about a society where people use a device to relive or share experiences as if they were happening in real time.
Human testing is years away, according to the surgeon/scientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been conducting memory transference experiments with animals. But when agency spook Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is murdered in London, taking with him the location of hacker Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt), a man in possession of some world-threatening software, Pope’s boss, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), is desperate for that information. So Franks—who warns that even if the transplant is successful, its effects are probably temporary—attempts to transfer the memories contained in the remaining electric impulses of Pope’s dying brain into violent convict Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).
But the CIA can’t hold on to its new asset and Jericho soon has both it and terrorists led by Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Mollà) on his tail. Plus one hell of a migraine, a sudden fluency in French (even if he thinks it’s Spanish), and a growing attachment to Bill Pope’s widow Jill (Gal Gadot) and young daughter Lucy (Lara Decaro). The operation hasn’t made Jericho any less vicious and unpredictable, but it has turned him into a softy.
In 2008, Benedict Cumberbatch started in a UK miniseries, The Last Enemy, about a near-future England where the government conducts full 24/7 surveillance on everyone. Criminal presents that world as fact, only it is not the English government that can track anyone anywhere. It’s the Americans and the terrorists. Surely, MI-6 and Scotland Yard might have a few things to say about all these foreigners on both sides of the law blowing stuff up and holding raging gun battles on the streets of London, but then it’s clear that not much thought was given to the story. It’s all about that Awakenings angle, the degenerate titular criminal who gets a new lease on life, however impermanent.
It is ludicrous. Costner does what he can in playing a character that begins as a lethal Tasmanian Devil and never becomes any less lethal even as he adopts the attitudes and aptitudes of the apparently more affable Bill Pope. The character is a cartoon and so is this ridiculous movie, more brain-dead, by far, than the unfortunate Bill Pope.—Pam Grady