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Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review: 'Criminal'

Criminal is an ugly, weird, psychotic flick that wastes too many of its esteemed assets.

Review by Matt Cummings


WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.

There's not much that the spy thriller Criminal gets right, and that's too bad because its fascinating premise and great cast are outshined by a shoddy script, marginal execution, and the sense that some studio head pushed this project into the wrong direction.

The violent world of spy craft has taken another soldier, this time in murdered CIA operative Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). But his sacrifice yields an interesting by-product: he was on his way to pick up the launch codes for the entire American defense network, which was stolen by a shadowy character named The Dutchman (Michael Pitt). The bag's disappearance and location of The Dutchman have also spurred interest by other parties, including the psychotic anarchist Heimdahl (Jordi Molla), who desires to sell the laptop to the highest bidder in the hopes of encouraging world-wide destruction. But Pope's death won't go unnoticed: his boss Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) learns that the cast-aside Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) has a radical method to save people's memories: by transferring them to human hosts. Unfortunately, no normal person would apply, and so Wells taps a violent destructive criminal in Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner) to undergo the process. The wild and unpredictable Jerico has a brain disorder that Wells hopes will fill in the missing gaps of his existence while providing the location of the money bag and The Dutchman. But Jerico has his own plan, including finding Pope's wife Jill (Gal Gadot), of whose memories of their happy marriage begin to overtake the savage lifer. As time runs down for the CIA, Jerico must decide if his strangely growing allegiance to Jill and her daughter is more important than saving the world.

The problem with Criminal starts early, as we're led to believe that all this ruckus in London wouldn't come under the attention of MI-5; they're nowhere to be seen, and Writers Douglas Cook and David Weisberg don't seem to care. They're more worried about tension-filled moments between Jerico and Quaker, and Jerico's coming-out party of violence, while expecting their audience to accept certain things about their universe that focus on guns and high-speed driving. But Cook and Weisberg make the classic mistake of surrounding their story with as much pseduo-realism as possible, including real-life anchors interviewing our antagonist. The seemingly unending amount of violence keeps audiences from figuring things out until the end of Act II. By that time, we've seen simulated rape, brain matter, and ultra violence, all wrapped around an implausible plot.

Typically a film like this almost dares you to switch off your brain, because it fashions itself rather dim-witted. Not Criminal: it wants you to think about the world's growing espionage machine while forcing you to drink the mayhem of flying cars and generally crass behavior by Coster, who's as naughty as I've ever seen him. But while he keeps the audience laughing with his punching, slamming, and extreme potty mouth, Director Ariel Vromen fashions together one of the poorest-used acting troupes this year. He casts many of them aside with the least amount of care, including early, random deaths and absolutely zero character development. Alice Eve and Amaury Nolasco amount to little than CIA chauffeurs for Jerico, and Reynolds' trapezing through London could have been acted by anyone; they're all just pawns in Vromen's game, cleared off the board so we can get to the violent checkmate. At that point, the script descends further into darkness and unbelievability, spiraling toward an impossible conclusion, especially if you're a female audience member. Gadot goes from being nearly raped by Jerico to finding solace in that same man who just happens to have her husband's memories trapped inside him. And while Jill is eventually exposed to the truth, it doesn't help the audience understand her motivations any better.

Those few bright spots that try to make themselves known are quickly shot in the face and run over by a cavalcade of government vehicles. Gadot is very good, adding to her resume as a woman deeply troubled by her husband's death and looking for answers, while Costner is re-branded as this year's psychotic gem. He plays naughty so well that I'd like to see him in other vehicles, although nowhere near any talk of a sequel. He's unhinged throughout, yet somehow survives acts that would kill just about anyone else, including being shot multiple times and walking away from a t-bone collision. But this is Jerico, and he won't be denied no matter the price be paid: lame. We soon realize that supporting anyone here - even Jill and daughter - would accept us into a world where asinine decisions seem to be the order of the day.

Oldman, usually an excellent anti-hero, here just yells a lot. Sure, the life of the free world is at stake, but at least care about your assets before dumping them. Jones is more like a hapless old doctor than the gritty FBI guy from The Fugitive; he wants to help Jerico, but only because he's a doctor and not because he thinks Jerico has been somehow misguided into this farce. Criminal could have retained the violence of Jerico while providing an interesting character study about the possibilities behind the science. Antje Traue wants to be the seductive femme fatale, but she's not given enough scenes for us to appreciate her cutthroat tactics as Heimbahl's squeeze and lieutenant. Molla as Heimbahl is as one-note bad guy as possible. He's given one scene to explain his reasons for going Rogue Nation on us, but it's not enough for us to appreciate his warped mind. He has no plans post-nuclear winter annihilation, and his passive-aggressive nature soon makes him a caricature, especially as he pleads with The Dutchman to return the launch codes. Clearly, they know each other but Vromen has excised that out of the final print. The Dutchman is making the deal to get his payday without - you guessed it - knowing why he's doing it in the first place.

But at its heart, Criminal just can't be trusted to tell the truth. How could the CIA operate on the foreign soil of a trusted ally, without MI5 so much as asking why? It's almost laughable how our creative team treats foreign relations here, assuming that all we care about is car crashes and missile demonstrations while Quaker and Dr. Franks argue about Jerico's deepening situation. And the promise of Jerico reverting back to his old self is suddenly replaced at film's end with something very different. That happy ending - originally touted as a necessary assassination - is a total sell out of the premise; believe me, I'd rather see the dark, violent ending which is suggested at film's beginning than the family reunion we got, which then leads Quaker to offer Jerico a job. Ok...what?? Regardless if audiences had left with a heavy heart, it would have at least retained the honesty behind its premise. This is the worst kind of attempted franchise-making.

Criminal does its best to squander its many assets, reducing our experience to a series of reckless stunts and a story about a caveman who can finally act like the rest of us. I couldn't help but notice that as Jerico matured into a semi-loving father, the movie around him degraded into a series of silly stunts and increasingly unbelievable plot holes. The real core of the film - the idea of transference and the struggle both subjects undergo could be a really interesting premise, provided that someone someday treats their audience like Ex Machina and not Criminal.

Criminal is rated R for strong violence and language throughout and has a runtime of 112 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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