Early on in Criminal, a CIA officer (Ryan Reynolds) gets captured and tortured to death in needlessly graphic fashion by the primary antagonist of the film, a Spanish anarchist played by Jordi Mollà (Bad Boys II). After making a call to the requisite loving wife (Gal Gadot) and adorable kid, Reynolds realizes he’s being tailed by Mollà’s right hand woman (Antje Traue, Man of Steel). He tries to lose her by slipping into a cab, apparently unaware that Traue has the ability to call in the cab’s license plate and have Mollà track it through a magic laptop that gives him beyond NSA-level access for reasons which are never explained. Reynolds’s handler (Gary Oldman) gives him a rally point to be extracted from, and Reynolds feeds it to the cabbie’s GPS. However, Mollà and his magic laptop hijack the GPS and change it to another location in a way that could only be less subtle if the GPS’s voice said “Turn left in a quarter mile. Your impending doom will be on the right.”
As somebody who is maybe too quick to forgive logical gaps in storytelling, when I catch myself thinking “This would be so much easier to digest if Ryan Reynolds just keeled over from an uncinematic brain aneurysm in the first minute of the movie,” then something has gone terribly wrong. If the movie is going to treat the bad guy’s hilariously advanced capabilities as a given, that suggests the world within the movie is treating it as a given, because what other options do we have in order to maintain suspension of disbelief? After this disaster, at no point does Gary Oldman’s character ask “Hey, how come my guy never showed up to the coordinates I gave him? What was his cab and his battered body doing in a completely different area? Oh God, have we been breached?” Right off the bat, the character has zero credibility as a CIA big shot, which is deeply impressive considering that he’s played by Gary Oldman.
Again: I’m normally forgiving of, even blind to, logical gaps in storytelling. For all the ten dollar words I’m predisposed to, I’m actually a pretty cheap date. I will go to bat for a B-movie like Man on a Ledge, despite plot logic that hangs together with popsicle sticks and chewing gum. I’ll do it because of its efficient narrative, how well the actors define and build their characters, and how effectively its director (Asger Leth) turns the screws on them in his buildup to the climax, which plays out so well it still gives me panic attacks every time I watch it.
Criminal has none of these things. Criminal is the kind of movie that introduces two separate antagonists, working at cross-purposes, before launching into the main conceit of its story. See, the reason why Gary Oldman is so invested in Agent Ryan Reynolds is because Reynolds is the only one who knows the location of a hacker (Michael Pitt) he stashed away in a safe house. Pitt has punched his way through The Deep Web to find access codes for the U.S.’s missile defense system. He’s named himself sole administrator and he wants money and a clean passport before he gives it back.
Why hasn’t Pitt been declared a threat to global security and shot in the head? Well, the CIA actually thought of that, but Agent Ryan Reynolds argued “Look, he’s actually a good guy who’s in too deep and scared out of his mind. Let’s just give him what he wants.” But before Reynolds can pay the hacker off, Anarchist Jordi Mollà tortures him for Pitt’s location — and, might I add, is pretty fucking quick to kill him when he doesn’t immediately get it, considering all the resources at his obvious disposal and his lack of other options. Pitt knows if he sells the defense system to Mollà he’s effectively ending the world. So once he learns of Reynolds’ demise, feeling screwed over by the Americans, he threatens to sell the system to the Russians instead.
So this entire clusterfuck is going on, and yes, most of it is established before we bring in Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, and the main plot of the movie: wherein Costner, a remorseless murderer with Frontal Lobe Syndrome, is implanted with Ryan Reynolds’ memories by brilliant neurosurgeon Tommy Lee Jones so that Costner can point Gary Oldman to Michael Pitt before Pitt finds the Russians or Jordi Molla finds him. (It could only be Costner because his particular brain damage gives Tommy Lee Jones an effective blank slate to implant the memories onto.) But just because Costner has Reynolds’ memories, he doesn’t stop being Costner, so he escapes and goes looking for the bag of money Reynolds was going to use to pay the hacker so he can break free of society and live out his days in a house with a TV for company. Along the way, however, Costner learns a little grace and empathy thanks to the memories of Ryan Reynolds with Gal Gadot and their adorable daughter. But those memories can only stay for so long; Costner has to choose between saving himself and saving the world.
That is as simple as I could have possibly made it, I promise. Seriously, look at all that mess. Criminal tries to do so much more than it can really handle, it plays like it’s trying to do even more than that, and yet, for all the talented name actors they roped into this thing, none of them have anything to do besides recite lines and collect a paycheck. Tommy Lee Jones has three or four scenes as a kindly doctor. Gary Oldman bloviates in what is essentially the Angry Captain role; he gets one scene to mourn Reynolds alongside Alice Eve’s character, which is supposed to show the wounded heart that drives his anger, but it feels more perfunctory than anything else. Gal Gadot frowns a lot and occasionally carries a gun because somebody remembered she was a badass in the Fast and Furious saga. Only Jordi Mollà gets to do anything halfway interesting, playing his terrorist character as a buttoned-up intellectual who takes his relationships with his comrades and allies very seriously. Like with Oldman’s one scene, nothing meaningful comes of this quirk. Everything here is so surface level and expected, it’s frankly more accurate to refer to these characters by the names of the actors playing them.
It still probably could have worked if Kevin Costner clicked in the lead role. There are a few moments — such as a scene in a café where he goes from being surprised he can speak French to beating the shit out of an offended customer — where he can dial into the right frequency for his character, and the film seems to snap into relief around him. Other times, though, he just seems lost; his character makes some ugly choices in the narrative, and while I hate to say that he’s not sympathetic enough to carry them (sympathy for a protagonist is overrated, I feel), he’s a pretty hard guy to root for early on, and it costs the movie some critical momentum.
As easy as it would be to lay the blame entirely on Costner and the script, Ariel Vromen directs this with all the panache of a direct-to-Netflix thriller. The entire visual plan of this thing — the ugly grey color palate, the boring shot selection, the choppy editing, the lazy chyrons that introduce only half the cast — is indicative of a guy who is eternally five minutes from calling lunch, so it frankly wouldn’t shock me if Vromen was just as lost on who this character was supposed to be as Costner was. The climax of the film ends up being a nice piece of badass action with Costner beasting his way through a bunch of Mollà’s henchmen, but as cool as it looks, nothing about it feels gratifying.
Action films, at their best, can take an internal struggle and externalize it in a fun, cathartic way. John Wick was a metaphor for the grieving process. Dredd was about the ways we measure ourselves against our idols. Even a movie as big as The Winter Soldier talked about our growing discomfort with the sacrifices we made in liberty in exchange for security. Criminal wants to be a beautiful story about redemption and wanting to be better people than we are, but the actual story being told is too ugly and cheap for the metaphor to stick.
Chuck Winters is a film school graduate who never learned how to bitterly hate half of everything he watches. He lives in noted cultural hotspot Suburban Long Island, where he is working on his first novel.