Friday, April 15, 2016

In Theaters: CRIMINAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Ariel Vroman. Written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg. Cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, Michael Pitt, Jordi Molla, Antje Troue, Scott Adkins, Amaury Nolasco, Colin Salmon, Natalie Burn, Lara Decaro. (R, 113 mins)

Your tolerance for the high-concept sci-fi espionage actioner CRIMINAL is dependent upon a number of things: how much you can suspend your disbelief, how much you can stomach graphically brutal and gleefully over-the-top violence, and how perversely fascinating you find serious, award-caliber actors slumming it in a trashy genre offering from Cannon cover band Millennium (I'd recommend running the Cannon intro on your own as the movie starts to get the maximum effect). To Millennium's credit, they brought their A-game to this, opting to actually shoot a London-set story in London instead of their usual unconvincing Bulgarian backlot. Even their go-to CGI clown crew at Worldwide FX seems to have admirably stepped up to the challenge and produced possibly the best splatter and explosions they've ever done. At a cursory glance, CRIMINAL has "straight-to-VOD" written all over it, but with a wild script by the late Douglas Cook (he died in July 2015) and David Weisberg, the same duo who wrote THE ROCK (Michael Bay's one legitimately awesome movie), assured direction by the promising Ariel Vroman (the little-seen 2013 mob movie THE ICEMAN), and an absurdly overqualified cast, CRIMINAL ultimately transcends its dubious first impression and if you're approaching it in the right mood, ends up a hell of a lot more enjoyable than it has any business being.

When London-based CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, who's all over the trailers but not in the print ads or the poster) is tortured and killed by international terrorist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla--was Rade Serbedzija busy?), his London CIA bureau chief Quaker Wells (a ranting Gary Oldman) needs vital info Pope had but has no way of obtaining it. Enter Dr. Micah Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), who's spent 18 years working on the transplanting of memories but is still five years away from human trials. Wells decides that time is now when the dead Pope's brain is kept alive and Franks--short for Frankenstein?--springs Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner) from a maximum security hellhole to be their guinea pig. Stewart, a psychotic, sociopathic, zero-remorse killing machine who feels no emotion and no pain thanks to a broken home and a childhood abuse incident where he suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of his enraged dad that caused his frontal lobe to stop forming at the age of ten, is flown to London and has Pope's memories injected into his brain. The experiment doesn't initially take, and despite the sympathetic Franks insisting Stewart needs more recovery time, an impatient Wells orders him terminated. Of course, Stewart ends up escaping custody and heading on a rampage across London when Pope's memories start materializing in his head. Stewart is alarmed to find that he can suddenly speak French (though he thinks it's Spanish) and has tastes for the finer things in life like lattes, but he's still Jerico Stewart and can't stop himself from killing innocent people in cold blood or beating the shit out of a pompous asshole in a coffee shop ("Who punches someone in a patisserie?" the outraged victim yells, in one of the many intentionally funny bits). With Wells and the CIA as well as Heimdahl's ruthless hit woman Elsa Mueller (Antje Troue) in hot pursuit for the information that is becoming clearer by the minute, Stewart eventually hides out with Pope's widow Jill (Gal Gadot), and feels genuine emotion for the first time when Pope's perceptive and impossibly cute daughter Emma (Lara Decaro) is nice to him. Stewart finally grows a conscience and decides to act on Pope's memories, which involved negotiating a CIA deal with hacker Jan Strook, aka "The Dutchman" (Michael Pitt), who has the ability to override all US military launch codes and intends to sell that info to the megalomaniacal Heimdahl, a crazed anarchist hell-bent on bringing down all of the world's governments.

Costner, introduced in chains with long hair and a madman beard like Sean Connery in THE ROCK and speaking in a guttural, Nick Nolte grumble, has never cut this loose onscreen before, whether he's hamming it up as the insane Stewart or bopping his head Roxbury-style as he steals a van and cruises around London looking for trouble. But when Stewart grows more human thanks to the gradual clarification of Pope's memories that trigger actual feeling within him, Costner gives Liam Neeson some serious competition in the "60-and-over asskicker" club by demonstrating acting chops that a Van Damme or a Dolph Lundgren wouldn't had this been a typical Millennium/NuImage offering. Jones remains low-key and somber and doesn't have much to do after the initial surgical procedure, and the same goes for Alice Eve, prominently billed in a thankless supporting role that gives her nothing to do. Likewise for DTV action hero Scott Adkins, who's in the whole movie as one of Wells' flunkies but is tragically underused, only getting a few "Yes, sir, whatever you say!"s to Oldman and no action scenes of his own (speaking of Adkins--while Vroman does a fine job, here's another larger-scale Millennium/NuImage project that would've been perfect for Isaac Florentine). With his hair flopping all over the place and froth forming in the corners of his mouth, Oldman works at two speeds here: irritable and apoplectic. He paces around what looks like a vacant BOURNE crisis suite as everyone watches monitors, waiting for just the right time to bellow "Find Jerico Stewart!" and "It's him! Let's go!" or, in his more introspective moments, "FUCK!" like a bloviating jackass who seems blithely unaware that he's got a ridiculous name like "Quaker Wells" (Adkins' character is listed as "Pete Greensleeves" in the credits, but I don't recall any of the agents working under Wells ever being referred to by name). CRIMINAL is total empty calorie junk food, but it's junk food of the highest caliber. Like sweets and snacks that really do nothing good for you, you just need them once in a while, and CRIMINAL scratches that '80s/'90s throwback itch not just with its ridiculous premise and hooky electronic score by Brian Tyler and Keith Power (yes, like nearly everything else these days, it's "Carpenter-esque"), but with the casting of real actors--I wonder if Costner, Oldman, and Jones did any JFK reminiscing between takes--to seal the deal.

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