The opening of “Criminal” might make you think you’re in for a Jason Bourne movie starring Ryan Reynolds. Nope. What you’re in for is a delightfully cheesy ’90s-style action movie starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman, with Costner doing a Liam Neeson- style tough guy career reinvention. It’s quite the bait and switch.
“Criminal” is written by the screenwriting team behind ’90s classics “The Rock” and “Double Jeopardy,” and directed by Ariel Vromen, who recently helmed the creepy Michael Shannon hit-man movie “The Iceman.” Jones plays Dr. Franks, a researcher who has developed a process to transplant one person’s memories into another person’s brain.
When the need arises to get CIA agent Bill Pope’s (Reynolds) memories out of his head, Dr. Franks has the perfect candidate — Jericho Stewart (Costner), a killer and psychopath in a maximum-security penitentiary. He’s got “frontal lobe syndrome” from a childhood injury, which also probably caused his criminal behavior. “He feels nothing,” they reiterate.
CIA boss Quaker Wells (Oldman) has got no time for human trials or to find a better, less crazy candidate. They need Pope’s memories to find a Dutch hacker (Michael Pitt) who has hacked into the U.S. “Vigilant Shield” missile system. If they don’t find the Dutchman (which they shout a lot: “The Dutchman!”), he might sell the info to a Spanish anarchist (Jordi Molla) or “make a deal with the Russians.”
Turns out, psychopaths from the federal pen aren’t super reliable or compliant. Though the memories take, Jericho has no patience for Oldman’s screeching, and he busts himself out as quickly as possible thanks to his shiv-making skills, and sets off with Pope’s memories to track down a duffel bag full of money he stashed somewhere in London.
The premise is completely ludicrous, and characters shout deliciously silly things like, “If you had kept better tabs on the Dutchman, we would have already had the wormhole!” You will wonder constantly why this isn’t a Nicolas Cage movie. Gary Oldman is totally out of control, chomping the scenery within an inch of its life.
But the movie is actually … kind of good. The emotional stakes are there, and director Vromen never lets it stop moving. Even when it’s chaotic, it’s still clear. Costner is also pretty great, even when he’s gamboling about London like a rambunctious hobo. A sociopathic lifelong prisoner released onto metropolitan European streets is just fun — he discovers EDM! And lattes!
Back to the emotional stakes: The idea that someone else’s memories might make an unrepentant killer feel something real for the first time ends up being a rather poignant concept. Jericho, written off and imprisoned by society, not only gets a purpose in his life, but he also gets to understand the way that other, normal people understand the world. Costner truly sells this, and he develops a tenderness toward Pope’s wife, Jill (Gal Gadot), and daughter.
Due to his star persona, it’s initially kind of hard to take Costner seriously, but he actually ends up being quite good as the brutal Jericho, and everyone around him is at least fully committed and game to go along for the ride. “Criminal” feels like the kind of high-concept, unapologetically preposterous action movies of the heyday in the ’80s and ’90s. If that’s your thing, it’s a hoot.