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April 15, 2016

When I reviewed Self/less last summer, I said that it was visually disappointing for a Tarsem film, but that at least it was groping towards something interesting to say about its key science-fictional turn: the prospect of transplanting memories or even whole personalities from one human brain to another. If nothing else, Criminal proves me right that Self/less was at least trying to say something interesting. Presented with the same setup, Douglas Cook and David Weisberg — the writing team behind The Rock and Double Jeopardy — manage to say precisely nothing interesting at all.

This time, rather than being the recipient who gets the bulk of the screen time, it’s Ryan Reynolds whose memories have to be recovered. His CIA agent Bill Pope is killed in London while trying to exfiltrate Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt), a dutch hacker code-named — wait for it — “The Dutchman”. He has created a “wormhole” in the “dark web” that allows him access to all the United States’ weapons systems, and every time the screenwriters mangle some technobabble I die a little more inside. This would obviously be useful to the anarchist mastermind (Jordi Mollà) who asked him to build it in the first place, but Jan has had a change of heart and wants to turn it over to the USA in exchange for sanctuary and a small fortune. Or, failing that, to Russia.

But with Bill Pope dead, they don’t know where Jan is holed up. The chief, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), gets the idea to leverage an experimental government-funded procedure that can transfer memories — even from a dead brain — into another host. And despite being years away from the earliest human trials, Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) has the unique test subject already picked out. Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) sustained an injury as a child, which left his frontal lobe an undeveloped mass of stem cells, which makes him uniquely qualified to receive the imprint from the dead agent’s brain.

And yes, all of this is the highest of nonsense. But the true genius — or madness — of Criminal is the way Cook and Weisberg craft a sci-fi-inflected techno-thriller about computer hackers and neurology and military infrastructure that understands as little about any of those topics as Double Jeopardy understood about Fifth Amendment protections. And that’s by making us spend all our time focusing on an unhinged idiot lunatic who just doesn’t care about any of it.

At its heart, Criminal takes a long look at the Bourne movies and decides that their real problem is a sense of restraint. As Zack Snyder fumes over having to throw in a few weaselly lines as a fig leaf over the massive carnage that is Dawn of Justice, Cook and Weisberg are busy dismantling whatever sense of restraint there is in the “gritty” end of the espionage-thriller genre. “Wouldn’t it be more fun,” they reason, “if the guy with all the skills and training and competence were also an unbridled projection of the raging id-monster that we assume lies within the hearts of all the gruff, aging, white, working-class men in our target demographic?”

And so Jericho — and seriously, these names are the stuff of bad letters to the editor of Soldier of Fortune — doesn’t need to understand computers and neither do you, tough guy. If they do come up, he can mutter at someone European and vaguely effeminate, who looks like he puts something called “product” into his hair, and that little sissy will make it work while he gets on with the manly stuff.

The only check on his impulses a macho guy like this can accept is the need to protect women and children. Both are conveniently provided by Bill Pope’s widow, Jill (Gal Gadot) — seriously, Bill and Jill — and daughter. They exist almost exclusively to be put into harm’s way, in order to yank Jericho around more explicitly. And, in case there was any doubt, it’s obvious that a little thing like waking up bound and gagged, with this guy practically drooling over her, is not going to stop her from being awarded as his prize by the time the credits roll.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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