When a CIA operation in London goes wrong, Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed on the job. In order to extract crucial information and complete the job, the agency implants Pope’s memories into the brain of convicted felon Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) in an experimental procedure. But Jericho has other plans.
You’ve heard of Face/Off. Well, this is Brain/Off. Where once John Travolta took on Nicolas Cage’s face, here, Kevin Costner takes on Ryan Reynolds’ mind, in a manner of speaking. The result, alas, is less charmingly absurd than that promises.
This sort of high-concept science-fiction material tends to go in two directions. Either you take the John Woo route, and go big, brazen, and riotously silly; or go the Philip K. Dick/Charlie Brooker route, and sketch out a clearly defined fictional world, exploring the social and political ramifications of the premise.
You’ve heard of Face/Off. Well, this is Brain/Off.
As hinted at by the thunderously bland title, Criminal chooses neither: opting instead for a boring Bourne-lite procedural template that rapidly skips over the ‘sci’ part of the sci-fi. The memory-transfer procedure at the centre of the film is hurriedly explained away in some unintentionally hilarious early dialogue. “Can you or can you not,” asks a CIA agent somberly, “transfer memories from a dead mammal to a live one?”
That’s about as much careful exposition as the ruinously underwritten script ever offers. It’s never really explained what mission Pope (Reynolds) is on, or why it’s so important. Nor is it satisfactorily explained why Jericho (Costner), a violent prisoner who “has a total lack of empathy”, should be the one to take on Pope’s memories. It’s also never explained what the villain of the piece’s motivation is (other than his foreign accent, of course), or what his evil plot is. Something about blowing up the world?
It’s certainly never explained what drew Kevin Costner to the role. His late career bloom has seen him gravitate towards the more ambiguous characters, the grittier, hard-bitten types. That may well have been the appeal here. But, as we are implored to sympathise with a fairly appalling human being who thinks nothing of murdering innocents for fun, it feels a little less ambiguous. That he had to learn empathy through some nebulous fantasy medical procedure is no help.
Costner is not the only big-name star in this cast who really deserves better (and really ought to know better). Gary Oldman does a bit of shouting. Tommy Lee Jones just looks a bit sad. Alice Eve is pointlessly murdered. Gal Gadot mostly appears in beach flashbacks. Nobody should be thanking their agents.
Frankly, the only person who deserves to be in this mess is Piers Morgan, who makes one of his now unfortunately regular cameos, as himself. In this hellish fictional universe, he has his own daily talk show. Is that a universe you really want to spend any time in?
A preposterous premise that never makes sense. A tedious thriller that offers no thrills. An A-list cast reduced to C-list material. Piers Morgan. We can but pray that scientists invent a procedure to remove the memory of ever watching this film in the first place.