Last summer, Ryan Reynolds gave us the mind-bending, but bland, body-swap drama “Self/Less.” Four years earlier, he offered the underwhelming body-swap comedy “The Change-Up.” And now, with the action-thriller “Criminal,” his unofficial body-swap trilogy is complete.
Sharing story cues with Reynolds’ mega-hit “Deadpool,” this out-of-body offering fares far better than its predecessors, delivering thrills, messed-up fun and some solid chills. However, sadly for Reynolds, he’s not its leading man.
Playing a family man/CIA agent Bill Pope, Reynolds kicks off “Criminal” with an electrifying chase scene that all too soon ends with his demise. Dead or not, his handler (Gary Oldman) needs the secrets imprinted on Pope’s brain, including the location of a stash of cash and the hiding place of a notorious hacker (Michael Pitt). So in comes a world-weary doctor (Tommy Lee Jones) to copy Pope’s frontal lobe onto the brain of a damaged convict, Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).
A childhood injury makes this unlikely madman the perfect black slate for Pope’s memories, but along with recollections about the lovely Mrs. Pope (Gal Gadot) and the hiding hacker come a wealth of skills that make Jericho even more dangerous. On the run, Jericho decides to seek out the loot in a bid to disappear forever. But Pope’s love for his family and a determination to do the right thing turn Jericho’s brain into a war zone.
It’s the kind of high concept that was all the rage in ’90s crime romps, like “Face Off.” Fittingly, “Criminal” was penned by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, the writers behind “The Rock” and “Double Jeopardy,” who know their way around the genre, and spice up the narrative with an anarchist antagonist (Jordi Mollà), scads of action, and some darkly comic moments. For instance, when Jericho is surprised to hear himself ordering lunch in another language, he exclaims, “I’m speaking Spanish, motherfucker!” And when a snooty hipster corrects him with “You’re speaking French, motherfucker,” Jericho’s curt response is to beat the guy into a puddle of snot and blood.
Part of what makes these brutal gags work is the seeming miscasting of Costner. Sure, he’s dabbled in a dark side with “Mr. Brooks” and “A Perfect World,” but with “Field of Dreams,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Man of Steel,” he’s cemented a persona of a tough all-American good guy. Jericho’s arc offers some tender moments, and Costner predictably nails those, but the real joy of “Criminal” comes in being scared by a guy we’ve cheered on for decades.
With his limbs lashing out and his snarling mouth firing off F-bombs, Costner clearly relishes playing a badass, which makes Jericho’s mayhem feel like an illicit pleasure. Like “Deadpool,” we’re witnessing the story of a seemingly selfish wise-ass learning to be a hero, and it’s subversive fun. Much like John Goodman in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” this casting curveball makes for a conflicting and complexly entertaining experience.
“Criminal” is a marvel, not only for its suspenseful storytelling, but also for the stars and stunts it manages within its slim budget. With Costner, Reynolds, Oldman, Jones and Gadot, director Ariel Vromen has pulled together heavy-hitters and superhero movie stars to bring his fantastical tale truckloads of dramatic weight and bravado. While his screen time is brief, Reynolds is grounded, gruff and compelling. Although often a “damsel in distress” here, Gadot gets some meaty scenes and her turn at busting heads. When Oldman, Jones and Costner share the screen (for the first time since “JFK”), it’s like watching retired champions return to the ring for once last battle. It’s dizzying.
This super ensemble is backed by a series of stunning action sequences that feel bone-rattlingly real thanks to Vromen’s reliance on practical effects. Forget the too-slick CG or the rubbery figures of poorly rendered superheroes. Cop cars flip life gymnasts. Metal crunches. Gas tanks explode. And from the debris, strolls Jericho, a new badass terrifying, terrible and awesome.
“Criminal” opens Friday.
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