Wednesday, April 20, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Criminal

Criminal was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, and directed by Ariel Vromen.

Cook and Weisberg are (or I guess were) very sporadic writing partners, having penned The Rock in 1996 and Double Jeopardy in 1999. That appears to be the last year they wrote anything until now. Cook died in 2015, meaning Criminal was the last film he worked on. What a legacy!

Vromen is an Israeli filmmaker who previously directed a trio of films no one's ever heard of: Rx, Danika and The Iceman.

Criminal feels like a throwback to the sci-fi action films of the 80s and 90s. Think Total Recall and Universal Soldier and you'll have the right idea. It's the type of film Van Damme or Schwarzenegger would have made in their primes. In fact I could easily imagine Cook and Weisberg coming across the unproduced Criminal script in their file cabinet, dusting it off and updating it for the new millennium. 

Scratch the surface of this film and it's pretty much Robocop. The hero is a law enforcement agent who's tortured and brutally killed by a criminal. His mind is placed into another body— admittedly an organic one this time, instead of a robot. The hero's memories begin bubbling to the surface, and he remembers his family and former life. He even vows revenge on the man who killed him!

The idea of a procedure that raises the intelligence of a patient is also similar to the 1968 film Charly, which was based on the novel Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It's the story of a intellectually disabled  baker who becomes a genius after an experimental procedure.

Ryan Reynolds stars in the film for a few minutes, and oddly enough this is the second movie he's made in the past two years that deals with memory transfer. In 2015's Self/less, Ben Kingsley plays a dying man whose memories are implanted into a healthy young man played by Ryan Reynolds.

Supposedly Criminal is a huge box office flop, grossing less than $6 million in its opening weekend. I'm not surprised. I go to the movies every weekend, and I never saw ANY marketing for the film before it opened. Not one single trailer or poster. In fact I didn't even know it existed until the day I saw it. C'mon, guys, I know marketing and advertising is expensive, but if you want people to see your movie, you've got to let them know it's out there.


The Plot:
A hacker who calls himself "The Dutchman" writes a wormhole program (whatever that is) that can override and activate the nuclear weapons of every country (riiiight). The Dutchman becomes spooked when anarchist Xavier Heimdahl wants the program for his own radical agenda. The Dutchman contacts the CIA, offering them the program in exchange for asylum and $10 million dollars.

CIA agent Bill Pope (played by Ryan Reynolds) stashes the Dutchman in a safe house in London. Pope's on his way to deliver the money to the Dutchman when he realizes he's being followed. He hides the money just before he's captured by Heimdahl's thugs. Heimdahl tortures Pope, demanding to know where he hid the Dutchman. Pope refuses to tell and Heimdahl kills him (allowing Ryan Reynolds to happily exit the movie so he can film Deadpool).

CIA supervisor Quaker Wells (played by Gary Oldman) is desperate to find the Dutchman before Heimdahl does. He contacts experimental neurologist Dr. Franks (played by a very miscast Tommy Lee Jones), who's working on a procedure that can transfer memories from one subject to another. Dr. Franks, who I'm sure wasn't named after "Frankenstein," knows the perfect recipient for Pope's memories—  a deadly, unstable criminal named Jericho Stewart (played by Kevin Costner).

Franks admits he's never performed the procedure on a human subject, but says Jericho is the perfect candidate, due to a childhood head injury that left him with an undeveloped frontal lobe. In other words, there's plenty of room for an extra mind inside Jericho's noggin. Franks performs the operation and implants Pope's memories into Jericho's head. Wells asks Jericho where Pope stashed the Dutchman, but he has no idea what he's talking about, meaning the experiment failed. Furious, Wells tells his agents to "dispose" of Jericho.

As the agents drive him away, Jericho figures out what's happening. He manages to kill his captors and fake his own death. Jericho then begins having flashes of Pope's memories, seeing a bag of money and a book by George Orwell. He makes his way to Pope's house and enters. Inside he finds Pope's wife Jillian (played by Gal Gadot) and ties her up. He experiences more of Pope's memory flashes, which prevents him from harming Jillian or her daughter Emma. He steals a few valuables and leaves.

Meanwhile the Dutchman gets tired of waiting on the CIA, so he contacts the Russian government to sell his program to them. Wells desperately wants to find him before that happens. Jericho tracks down Dr. Franks and asks him to help relieve the memory flashes. Franks realizes the operation was a success, as Pope's memories are beginning to dominate Jericho's mind. In fact Jericho is now much calmer and more rational, thanks to Pope's thoughts.

Wells discovers Jericho is still alive, and attempts to bring him in. Heimdahl sends his agent Elsa to capture him as well. Jericho doesn't trust either group and escapes by driving his car off a bridge. He injures his leg in the crash, and makes his way (undetected, mind you!) back to Pope's house. Jillian pulls a gun on him, and he manages to convince her that he has Pope's memories. After Emma befriends the "nice man," Jillian lets him stay the night. Jericho begins remembering "his" experiences with Jillian and Emma, and for the first time in his life feels actual human emotions.

The next morning Jericho remembers where Pope stashed the money— behind a George Orwell volume in the rare books collection of the University Of London, where Jillian works. He uses her credentials to enter the library and retrieve the money. He's then captured by Heimdahl, who somehow knew exactly where he'd be (there's a lot of that in this movie). Heimdahl threatens to kill Jillian and Emma unless he tells him where the Dutchman is hiding. Jericho manages to escape yet again.

Unfortunately Pope's memories are beginning to fade from Jericho's mind. Dr. Franks estimates they have less than forty eight hours before they disappear completely. He believes he can stabilize the memories (despite having never performed this operation on a human before), but only if Jericho allows him to operate again.

He finally remembers that he stashed the Dutchman in Jillian's office. He goes to get him, but is followed by Elsa. She takes the Dutchman's flash drive (which contains the wormhole program) and shoots him in the head. Jericho then brutally kills her with a lamp and retrieves the drive.

Jericho drives to the airfield where Heimdahl is holding Jillian and Emma, just as Wells and the rest of the CIA arrive. Wells pleads with Jericho to give him the flash drive, but he hands it over to Heimdahl in order to save his "wife" and "child." Heimdahl then flies off with the drive.

Wells sarcastically congratulates Jericho for dooming the world. Jericho tells him to relax— apparently while we weren't looking, he had the Dutchman reprogram the drive, so any missile launched will target the source. Sure enough, Heimdahl launches a couple of (nuclear?) missiles at strategic targets, but they zoom toward his plane instead, killing him.

The film ends with Jericho standing on the beach where Pope and Jillian spent their honeymoon. Apparently Dr. Franks operated on him again to try and stabilize Pope's memories in Jericho's head. Jillian cautiously approaches Jericho, unsure whether her husband's still in there or not. He gives her Pope's secret "I love you" sign, signifying the operation was a success. Apparently she's OK with the idea of hooking up with a stranger who has her late husband's memories. Wells offers Jericho a job with the CIA.

• Who the hell named the characters in this film? We've got Jericho Stewart, Quaker Wells, Hagbardaka Heimdahl (!) and Pete Greensleeves. Those aren't names, they're a series of random words strung together.

Sometimes filmmakers will give a character an unusual moniker in order to avoid a lawsuit. If Hannibal Lecter had been called Joe Johnson, you can bet someone out there with that name would have taken offense and sued the studio for defamation of character. I think this film is safe from any such lawsuits. Unless Hagbardaka Heimdahl is a much more popular name than I'm aware of.

• This film has one of the most comic book-y cast I've seen in quite a while.

Ryan Reynolds has been in five comic book films— he played Hannibal King in Blade III, Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, Nick Walker in R.I.P.D.and most recently Deadpool again in Deadpool. Kevin Costner played the idiotic Pa Kent in the detestable Man Of Steel. Gary Oldman was Commissioner Gordon in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Tommy Lee Jones was Agent K in all three Men In Black films, Two Face in Batman Forever and Col. Chester Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger. Alice Eve was in Men In Black 3. And Gal Gadot was most recently Wonder Woman in Dark Knight V Hopeman.

It's like The Avengers of thought-transference movies! On the other hand, there've been so many comic book movies in the past ten years or so that any cast is likely to feature a few actors who've been in one.

• Back in the 1950s, radiation was the go-to plot device in sci-fi movies. A lizard the size of a skyscraper? Radiation did it. Giant ants terrorizing the desert? Blame radiation. 

These days stem cells have replaced radiation as the all-purpose "scientific" catalyst. In Criminal, Dr. Franks explains that he's stimulating the stem cells in Jericho's undeveloped frontal lobe so they'll accept Pope's memories. Ah, good ol' misunderstood stem cells. Is there anything they can't do?

• Quaker Wells must be the CIA's worst supervisor ever. Literally every decision he makes is the wrong one, as he blunders his way through the entire film, always one step behind Jericho. I have no idea how he manages to keep his job.

• Somehow I just don't see Tommy Lee Jones, with his world-weary attitude and hangdog expression, as a scientist specializing in theoretical neurology. A detective, sure. A cowboy, definitely. But a scientist? Not so much.

• Dr. Franks says he's never tested his memory transfer technique on humans, so everything that happens to Jericho is new ground. Yet late in the film Franks somehow knows that Pope's transferred memories will begin to fade after forty eight hours, AND if he can somehow stabilize them before that happens, they'll become permanent.

I have to ask— just how in the holy hell can he possibly know all that? I guess he might have observed something similar happen with a lab rat, but… it seems like he's making some awfully unscientific guesses here.

• We're told that Jericho is a dangerous and deadly sociopath "without the capacity to feel empathy or emotion." So of course it only makes sense to use him as a human storage bin for a dead CIA agent's classified memories. What, was Charles Manson unavailable? Why would anyone in their right mind (heh) think this was a good idea?

The film tries to smooth over this bump in the plot road by having Dr. Franks claim that Jericho suffered an injury to his frontal lobe that makes him the perfect candidate for the operation. According to Franks, only one person in ten million has this condition. Nice try, movie.

• I know a person surrenders most of their rights when they go to prison, but can the government really force them to undergo dangerous, experimental surgery against their will?

• When we first meet Jericho, he's locked in a prison cell, wearing a collar around his neck. The collar's attached to the ceiling by a thick chain. Oddly enough there doesn't seem to be much slack in the chain. In fact it looks like it's impossible for him to sit or lie down.

Yeah, he's a criminal, but surely they don't make him stand in the center of the room like that twenty four hours a day? Did they maybe just raise the chain during the CIA's visit, to limit his mobility?

• After Jericho escapes CIA custody, he begins experiencing Pope's memories. He immediately makes a beeline for Pope's house. Later when he's injured, he heads there again to treat his wounds. He waltzes in and out of the house in broad daylight, totally undetected.

This is completely unbelievable. The movie takes place in London, one of the most heavily surveilled countries there is. There's no way in hell the CIA wouldn't have Pope's house under major video surveillance. That's the FIRST place the CIA should have looked. 

• So about the ending— it's implied that Dr. Franks operated on Jericho and managed to stabilize Pope's memories. It's further implied that Jillian is now in love with this simulation of her late husband— and Jericho's in love with her.

Bill Pope is dead and gone, but his memories live on inside Jericho's head. Is Pope's soul in there as well? Has Jericho now become Pope? Is there any part of Jericho still left? Is a copy of Pope just as good as the original? These are all excellent questions. Too bad the writers have neither the talent, time or interest to explore them further.

Criminal feels like a sci-fi film from the 90s that's just now making its way into theaters. It has an unlikely premise, along with the usual action movie plot holes and illogic. There's some interesting ideas about memory, consciousness and the self somewhere in the movie, but unfortunately they're buried deep down under the half-baked action setpieces. Worst of all it lacks any kind of spark to elevate it above average. I give it a C+.


  1. Don't forget, Tommy Lee Jones also played Two Face in Batman Forever.

    Okay, never mind. Go ahead and forget that.

  2. Haw! I think I already forgot about that! I must have pushed that horrible movie completely out of my head.


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