Directed by: Ariel Vromen
Premise: A CIA agent dies before he is able to communicate critical information to his superiors. In an effort to retrieve that information, a psychopath (Kevin Costner) is put through an experimental procedure in which the dead man’s memories are duplicated in his brain.
What Works: Criminal is a science fiction film in disguise. The movie does not have the style and trappings usually associated with sci-fi and most of the movie takes place in recognizable settings with contemporary technology. But this is nevertheless a science fiction film as technology is integral to the story. The idea at the center of Criminal is an interesting one and the movie plays like a philosophical thought experiment. The lead character of Criminal is a psychopath whose frontal lobe is undeveloped, meaning that he has no impulse control or capacity for empathy. The CIA and a team of scientists put the prisoner through a procedure that replicates the frontal lobe of a recently deceased person and thereby reconstructs the dead man’s emotions and memories in the brain of another person. As a result, this criminal recovers the memories of the CIA agent, including the details of his last mission but also the agent’s relationship with his wife and daughter. This raises a lot of interesting questions about identity and memory and the relationship between moral culpability and intellectual capacity. It also creates a dramatically compelling character study. Kevin Costner plays the lead role and he’s quite good in the part. Costner has always had a knack for playing sympathetic killers as seen in A Perfect World and Mr. Brooks and he’s especially good here. Costner’s character is set on a rehabilitative trajectory, beginning the movie selfish and impulsive and gradually achieving empathy and a sense of responsibility. The development of the character is well staged; he doesn’t achieve goodness too quickly and the relationship between Costner’s character and the CIA agent’s family gives the movie some needed emotional impact.
What Doesn’t: The premise of Criminal is good but the movie doesn’t maximize its use of that idea. Instead, Criminal falls back on the clichés of the espionage techno-thriller, following the template of movies like Swordfish, Blackhat, Live Free or Die Hard, and most of the Mission: Impossible series. Like many of those films, Criminal concerns a small technological device that must be kept out of the wrong hands; in this case it is a program kept on a thumb drive that can hack into the United States’ defense systems and launch missile strikes and cause other havoc. An independent computer hacker has come up with the program, putting him in the crosshairs of both the CIA and a villainous anarchist. Herein the movie relies upon one of the most tired clichés of contemporary action movies: the Steve Jobs-like villain who spends almost all of the movie in front of a computer screen and can unleash hell through his laptop. These scenarios are always silly; even in a movie in which the main character has memories imprinted into his brain, the laptop-fu still comes across stupid. But more fundamentally, it keeps the hero and the villain from ever coming into direct conflict and that diminishes the drama. Whenever Criminal reverts to a techno-thriller instead of a psychological character study the movie goes flat. The villain is not interesting but neither are the stakes. The filmmakers exacerbate this at the movie’s climax. There are several coincidences and plot holes and the filmmakers misjudge who and what are most interesting about this story. The very ending of Criminal is a copout; the movie fails to complete the trajectory of its main character and it cheapens the redemption storyline with weak hook for a sequel.
Bottom Line: Criminal has elements in it that are really interesting but the movie is too generic. This is one of those pictures that makes for decent Saturday matinee entertainment when there’s nothing else to watch but it’s also frustrating because the premise of Criminal could have been so much more.
Episode: #593 (May 8, 2016)