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Criminal: Bad guy turned good (sort of)

Criminal, an existential sci-fi/ action thriller, could have been a lot worse. It could also have been shorter. With a little trimming and a more focused narrative, it might even have been a little gem.

Ryan Reynolds appears briefly as CIA agent Bill Pope, who is murdered in the midst of a top-secret operation in London. Since only Pope knew the specifics of what he was up to, his boss (Gary Oldman) is determined to preserve his memories by implanting them in someone else’s cranium.

That “someone” would be Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a grizzled and hardened convict with a brain condition that precludes him from any moral bearing.

He doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong – hence his incarceration – and, should the operation (conducted by surgeon Tommy Lee Jones) fail, what’s one more dead convict?

The procedure, of course, doesn’t fail, and Stewart, with bloodied holes on the back of his head and side of his neck – symbolizing, perhaps, the holes in David Weisberg and the late Douglas S. Cook’s screenplay – barrels through London in search of a mysterious computer hacker (Michael Pitt) and gunning for Euro-trash blackmailer Heimbahl (Jordi Molla), whose insidious plot – to conquer the world, undoubtedly – isn’t clearly conveyed. Nor is Molla a particularly threatening heavy, although he does his sneering best.

Stewart is also united with Pope’s grieving widow (Gal Gadot, recently seen as Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and adorable little girl (newcomer Lara Decaro), which naturally puts them in harm’s way.

Once upon a time, Jericho Stewart would have seemed tailor-made for the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Van Damme, but none of them would likely have brought the surprising vulnerability that Costner does to the role. At best, Stewart is an anti-hero, but Pope’s memories awaken in him a semblance of compassion and selflessness … but it doesn’t preclude him from dishing out violence when the situation calls for it.

As the amusingly named Quaker Wells, Oldman is playing another of his shifty, morally ambiguous characters. Initially believing the experiment to have failed, he orders two of his agents to dispose of Jericho – with predictable results. Yet he hardly seems concerned that he basically caused the deaths of his own men.

Then again, this is not a film particularly concerned with nuance.

Jones initially appears a little bewildered, but he nicely underplays the role of a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein – the character’s name is “Dr. Franks” (ho-ho!) – and makes him sympathetic, concerned as much about his patient as the consequences his scientific tinkering may have wrought.

Film fans may note that this marks a big-screen reunion for Costner, Oldman and Jones some 25 years after they co-starred in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Criminal isn’t in the same league, but it’s not bad and, actually, rather entertaining on a vicarious level, thanks in no small part to Ariel Vromen’s competent, stylish direction. !

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