Director Ariel Vromen—best known for bringing to the silver screen the true story of the longtime notorious hitman Ruchard Kuklinski in The Iceman—returns with the tension-free thriller Criminal, a film about an ex-con who is implanted with a dead CIA agent’s memories to finish an assignment.
We first meet agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) as an efficient man of justice and loving husband to Jill (Gal Gadot), as well as father to Emma (Lara Decaro). We barely get acquainted with his character when he gets killed, seemingly taking a very important espionage secret to his grave. This intel could prevent a major terrorist attack and save the entire planet.
Thus in order to retrieve the memories of the dead agent, neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) is encouraged by the chief of London’s CIA bureau, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), to proceed with an experimental science practice. Pope’s cerebral pattern will be implanted into the mind of a sociopathic convict, Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), who will have to find the Dutch hacker (Michael Pitt) to whom Pope was supposed to deliver some ransom money.
Amnesia and the loss of memory is often used in these kind of movies, but with Criminal, there is a reversal of the trend: two different memories overlap in one brain while one affects the other. Clearly Criminal opts for the most politically correct version of this concept, making sure the wholesome mind prevails over the ruthless one. Hence, over the course of only three days, the brain-damaged psychotic becomes an exemplary hero, unravelling an international conspiracy and learning the meaning of love.
Aristotle once said that “memory is the scribe of the soul,” and this shallow action drama attempts to depict the gist of this. However, Criminal falls down the rabbit hole of tear-jerking scenarios, showing the unearned reformation of the unscrupulous Jericho. He feels obliged to protect Bill Pope’s family because of the brain implant he has received and becomes rather sentimental, although the imperturbable Kevin Costner tries to contain the very gushy inputs provided by the script written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg.
The screenwriters found inspiration in their futuristic work from Ray Kurzweil, an American author, computer scientist, and inventor. His publications and theories address artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and life extension technologies, and have clearly been enlightening for the themes of this movie.
To convey this comme il faut, director Vromen also carried out his own research with Japanese scientists to get acquainted with the technologies that are transferring brain neurons of animals. As a result, neurological manipulation seems to be the new frontier, a contemporary version of Frankenstein—another story that has been fully exploited by cinema in a variety of adaptations. But contrarily to Mary Shelley’s novel, the battle between good and evil in Criminal is played aggravatingly safe with hardly a chance of an ending that could unsettle.
Criminal fails to succeed, as it gets absorbed on one side by an overly sympathetic proselytism and on the other by its struggles to generate narrative tension. Consequently, it opts for boisterous gunshots and excessive bloodshed. Another major flaw of the film is that despite the London setting, no one speaks with a British accent. Only Americans or Dutch can be found in the UK locations, from King’s Road in Kingston to the SOAS Library, extending out to Camber Sands in Kent, Croydon College, and Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire.
The drama will undoubtedly rely on star power to draw audiences to movie theaters, but whether they will value the experience is a different story. If Dr. Seuss was right when he said that “sometimes you will never know the value of something, until it becomes a memory,” only time will tell if the memory exploration carried out by this film was truly worthwhile.