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A not-so-smooth Criminal'

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Action thriller fails to move beyond genre trappings

We're all aware that 21st century Hollywood is built on a foundation of franchises, sequels and reboots. So many of the stories being told are ones that we already know, but considering the nature of movie financing, the risk alleviation that comes with familiarity is understandably tempting.

Obviously, this means that standalone, original stories are considerably thinner on the ground than they used to be. When these films really shine, giving us a new and interesting look at a style or genre of cinema, one hopes that a door is opened for the next opportunity. Too often, though, these films fall flat and slam far more doors than they could ever have hoped to open.

'Criminal,' an action offering directed by Ariel Vroman from a script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, is very much in the latter category.

Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, 'Deadpool') is a CIA agent working in London. His mission is to bring in a mysterious hacker known as 'The Dutchman' (Michael Pitt, 'Criminal Activities') who has somehow gained access to all the important security codes and whatnot for the United States. However, when his plan is at odds with that of Spanish anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla, 'In the Heart of the Sea'), the agent is killed.

Pope's boss Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman, 'Man Down') is desperate to gain access to what Pope knew specifically, the safe house location of the Dutchman. So desperate, in fact, that he brings in Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones, 'The Homesman'), a neuroscientist specializing in the transfer of memories from dead animals to living ones, to get it.

Due to circumstances, the only suitable recipient is Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner, 'McFarland, USA'), a violent career criminal whose childhood brain trauma has rendered him incapable of empathy or real emotion. That trauma also makes him an ideal subject.

However, the process isn't so simple. The memories come back not in a flood, but in bits and pieces. And when Stewart makes his escape, he finds himself driven by those snapshots of Pope's life including the agent's memories of his wife Jill (Gal Gadot, 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' and young daughter Emma (Lara Decaro, TV's 'Fortitude').

In the midst of it all, the CIA and Heimdahl are in a race to track down the Dutchman and get their hands on the wormhole that the hacker has created; the CIA seeks to prevent world war and Heimdahl hopes to incite it. Ultimately, the question is whether the man that Bill Pope was will be enough to help Jericho Stewart be the man that he needs to be.

'Criminal' wants to give the impression of being a more thoughtful film than it actually is. While the questions of identity and personality certainly could have made for interesting explorations, 'Criminal' is content to use them as little more than a feint toward high-mindedness, a shoddy framework to prop up what is essentially a tired and derivative action movie. The filmmakers' failure to embrace the concept in any meaningful way largely negates what impact the film might have had.

Much of this could have been forgiven if there was any fun to be had, but 'Criminal' is far too self-serious for that. Instead, we get a lot of glowering and growling from a cast of characters whose motivations are shallow at best and barely existent at worst.

Kevin Costner could have been an OK choice as Jericho Stewart; there has always been an emptiness behind his eyes that could pass for sociopathic. However, his inexplicable choice to speak all of his lines in a Billy Bob Thornton-esque grunt makes him difficult to take seriously. And while the blankness works when he's supposed to lack emotions and empathy, it kind of gets in the way anytime he's supposed to convey the feeling of feelings.

As for the supporting cast, it's kind of remarkable that such a talented bunch managed to fall so flat. Oldman spends most of his time yelling at screens or people looking at screens, while Jones plays every scene like his Xanax has just kicked in. Sure, the script and direction didn't do them any favors, but come on, guys you're better than this. Gadot is fine in a thankless part and Reynolds isn't in it enough to spoil things. Molla is an adequate big bad and nothing more, while Pitt is all tics and terrible accent.

There's no doubt that there's still room for interesting, original stories that are not franchises or reboots. They just need to be better than 'Criminal.'

[1.5 out of 5]

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