When you think of how best to describe Criminal, the new body swap action thriller starring Kevin Costner, it wouldn’t be by that name. As a title, Criminal is so hopelessly vague that it could apply to anything from Goodfellas to Les Misérables. The premise of this one isn’t anywhere near that bland, but the film is not a whole lot better than it sounds either.
Seemingly flowing from the same vein of Euro-trash action films that Liam Neeson opened up with Taken, the film is driven by what CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) knows, or rather what he knew, before a deal in London with a hacker known as the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) went awry and he was tortured to death by Spanish anarchist Xavier Heimdahl, (Jordi Mollà.)
His handler, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), needs to know in which safe house Pope hid the Dutchman before he met his demise and in his desperation, he enlists Dr. Mahal Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to administer a human trial of his revolutionary brainwave transference procedure. Having saved Pope’s brain, Franks is able to transmit his memories, if not his mind, into the brain of another subject.
Wells is rooting for “a hero from SEAL Team Six”, but Franks insists that only sociopathic convict Jericho Stewart (Costner) is suitable, due to a childhood brain trauma that left him with something of a blank slate where a normal adult would have developed a frontal lobe. The transfer is successful but Jericho retains his own personality and escapes captivity with a head full of memories of a family (Gal Gadot and Lara Decaro) that isn’t his, and Heimdahl and Wells hot on his tail.
In broad genre terms, this would be like a Bond film in which 007 is killed in the first 10 minutes and M gets Q to put his mind into Jaws’ body so that they can take down Blofeld. Imagine that, with significantly less class, and you’re somewhere in the ball park of Criminal, a ludicrous and mean-spirited thriller with more than a few unintentional laughs.
Once upon a time, getting Costner, Oldman and Jones in the same scene might have been a part of one of the best grown-up movies of the decade. Their one scene here is all in service of the film’s infantile sci-fi intrigue, with Oldman shouting every other line and Jones holding onto an air of perplexed grumpiness like a man lost at sea. I look forward to seeing them in the more interesting roles that this one funded.
The paycheck motivation certainly bears out for Ryan Reynolds, who has had an interesting couple of years even outside of the unexpected success of Deadpool – he’s only in this for a cameo and some occasional Quantum Leap style appearances, but older viewers may remember last year’s Self/Less and realise as he must have that this is the second mind-swap movie in which he’s starred in 12 months.
Elsewhere, Mollà seems to be playing the bargain bin version of Javier Bardem from Skyfall, but also takes a cue from Oldman by shouting dreadful lines like “I would not describe myself as happy” to his doting henchwoman, played by Antje Traue. She’s got little to do, but then neither do Gadot as the grieving wife, or Alice Eve, who has an inexplicably minor role as an American agent. Once again, it’s a thankless job being a woman in one of these movies.
It would be much too far to describe this film as fun, but it’s by the sheer might of Costner’s performance that it’s never boring. We’re big fans of the actor, and in recent years, he has mixed films like this and the execrable 3 Days To Kill in with more thoughtful dramatic fare of the kind to which his fanbase are more accustomed, like Draft Day, Black Or White and McFarland. He’s more engaged here than in his last Euro-trash outing and we can appreciate that he doesn’t phone it in as Jericho – you can’t say that of certain other distinguished gents of the geri-action subset.
For this sort of bonkers action, you want to send for a Jason Statham or a Nicolas Cage, the latter of whom turned it down. While he isn’t on their level of crazy and doesn’t try to be, it does feel like he’s cutting loose here. One obvious highlight comes when a prison guard tries to shoot him with a tranquiliser gun and even though he’s tethered around the neck by a big chain, he Zoidbergs his way around the cell giving taunting woob woob woobs at his captors.
His subsequent rampage around London with oozing, painful looking brain surgery scars almost starts to look like an episode of Jackass, but for the entirely unbelievable reactions of the Eng-er-lish bystanders. “Ere, that’s bang out of order” yelps one thug, shortly before Jericho caves his head in with a fuel can and makes off with a kebab and a van.
This has many of the ingredients you’d need for an enjoyable 90s throwback of the Jerry Bruckheimer variety, from the preposterous Face/Off pastiche to the yet more absurd names of the characters – convince us if you can that any parent would call their child Quaker Wells unless they wanted them to be a character in one of these movies.
Sadly, there’s no such luck – director Ariel Vromen (who previously showed off a nasty streak in serial killer biopic The Iceman) has turned in a competent but shockingly self-serious actioner, in which nothing, from the big-scale stunts to the gory spills and chills, is ever justified by the insincere sentimental streak. Like the pre-op Jericho, there’s barely anything in its head.
We’re averse to the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ here, but amidst all the squandered potential and gory, noisy action nonsense, we laughed guiltily at a fair bit of Criminal, especially at Costner causing panic in the streets of London. When finally, the honour fell to Oldman to deliver the dumbest final line of any movie we’ve seen this year, we chuckled all the way out of the cinema. But overall, it’s forgettable enough that we’re transplanting our memory onto you so that you don’t have to check if it’s worth the price of admission.
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