What a crazy time we live in when a movie about transplanting a dead man’s memories is more thriller then sci-fi…in fact, Criminal feels in no way like a sci-fi movie. Maybe that’s what makes it effective. Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA officer who is tortured and killed while en route to meet a hacker named Jan Stroop aka the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has control of a program called ‘The Wormhole’ which gives total access to Valiant Shield, the code name for the entirety of the US military. Pope was the only one who knew the location of the Dutchman’s safe house, so you could say his death was a bit of a problem for the CIA. Thankfully Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) is 18 years deep in a research project which can transplant the memories of one person to another. Franks is immediately picked up by the CIA and tasked with transplanting Pope’s memories before a Spanish anarchist (hey at least they didn’t go with Muslim terrorist) named Heimbahl (Jordi Molla) can find Stroop and claim the Wormhole. When asked if he has a subject picked out already he responds “Yes, but you’re not going to like it”. Enter Jericho Stewart, a psychopath in the truest sense of the word currently residing on death row. Stewart’s qualification for the procedure comes down to a brain trauma incurred as a child which left his frontal lobe undeveloped, thereby ideal for implanting the memories of another, a one in 10 million occurrence as were told. So what happens when you implant the mind of a highly trained CIA agent into the underdeveloped brain of a complete psychopath? What could go wrong?
As I’m writing this synopsis I start to realize how convoluted and silly the film sounds…maybe it’s just how I wrote it out because it’s neither of those things. This should be a simple espionage type thriller with sci-fi elements but its cast elevates it to a level above anything so run of the mill. This is Kevin Costner’s movie and he annihilates it. I’ve always believed it’s the subtle performances that deserve the most recognition, not the Oscar bait we see every year. Costner is that belief personified. Everything else in the film can fade away and still it will hold your interest to watch this total psychopath slowly morph into this good family man. At the risk of overusing the word it’s the subtle elevation of the change that really nails it home. When we first see Jericho truly on his own he walks into a small cafe, blows past the line, points at the menu and says “I want that” before taking food given to another patron, eating it, grabbing a drink, then walking outside to beat the living hell out of three men and steal their van all the while holding the posture and composure of a guy walking through his own home. As the implanted memories begin to take hold the violence slowly lessens and small things like saying ‘Cheers’ (a stand out funny moment) crop up as if someone is slowly turning a dial from psycho to normal. Costner as a psycho is clearly playing against type but then so is Tommy Lee Jones who, even in the small part he has, is truly effective as the soft spoken doctor with something genuinely caring in his eyes…he’s almost heartbreaking, evoking the emotion you’d have after seeing a little old man feeding the pigeons at a park with an empty spot next to him where his late wife used to sit. Depressing, I know, but that’s the best way I can describe it. The story is tightly written and though some of the plot involving Pope’s widow and daughter may seem out there, it can be understood through the context of a woman deep in grief given another chance to be with the one she lost. Thinking back the film was surprisingly light on real action given how gripping I found the story to be, but that in itself is more of a compliment then a complaint. If firefight’s are your thing, don’t worry there are plenty to be had.
When it comes to complaints, I really don’t have any that affected the way I enjoyed the film…afterthoughts really. Alice Eve, Gary Oldman, Jordi Molla, and Amaury Nolasco, were all basically set dressing with Oldman’s CIA chief being as standard as they come and Molla’s terrorist just popping in every 20 minutes or so to remind you he’s there. The central issue was your standard MacGuffin and the bad guys henchmen just as standard…oh and they threw in the Russians just for good measure. The thing is…none of that really mattered, they were all just a means to tell the real story of Jericho’s transformation. I should also mention before I close here that I really appreciated how they took the time to make the memory transplantation not only plausible but wholly believable, not only that but they did so in a way that was more simple as opposed to putting layers of hyper/pseudo-scientific exposition before the procedure which only served to make it seem like more of a normal thing that is actually happening.
Criminal is a step above other films in its class. The ones that usually find a big audience on cable and play 12 times a week on TNT three years after release, the forgettable thrillers. As clarification forgettable does not equal bad, there’s a ton of movies every year that are fun to watch which I can’t remember the names of 2 months later. No, Criminal does much more then that and its all thanks to Kevin Costner and his amazingly nuanced performance. It’s worth the ticket price so I say take a date night and see Criminal while it’s in theaters.
3.5 Out of 5 Guttenbergs