Considering the number of bad high-concept action-movie ideas that have passed all the way through development, the notion of adapting “Flowers for Algernon” into a Luc Besson-style hyperviolent spy pic really isn’t a terrible one. That’s the basic thrust of Ariel Vromen’s “Criminal,” which casts Kevin Costner as a brain-damaged, sociopathic convict implanted with the memories of a dead CIA agent, giving him a three-day window in which to unravel an international conspiracy, and perhaps also learn the meaning of love, before the effects wear off. Unfortunately, the film ends up in a position best described as the top of the bottom of the barrel: a tetchy, pummeling experience devoid of any real wit, invention or suspense, but boasting enough of a professional sheen and a sufficiently stacked cast to carve out some niche space overseas and on VOD. Domestic box office should be a different story.
While Costner takes the lead role, “Criminal” makes space for the likes of Gary Oldman, Gal Gadot, Tommy Lee Jones and Ryan Reynolds, which at times leaves the film feeling like a scrambled transmission from some distant galaxy in the DC Extended Universe. Reynolds is the focus of the film’s first reel, playing Bill Pope, a hotshot field agent in the midst of some delicate operation in London, watched over by bellowing bureau chief Quaker Wells (Oldman) back at headquarters. Thanks to the techno-interference of Spanish anarcho-industrialist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla), the operation goes sour, and Pope is killed.
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As it turns out, Pope was en route to deliver ransom money to a squirrelly Dutch hacker creatively codenamed “the Dutchman” (Michael Pitt, sweating up a storm), whose location only he knew. To extract that information, Wells turns to experimental neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones, never in danger of breaking a sweat), who has developed a procedure to transfer memories from one brain to another. For reasons the film really ought to explain in more detail, Franks insists that the only reasonable candidate in whose brain to entrust such classified information is violent hillbilly criminal Jerico Stewart (Costner, nobly striving to add shadings to a growly role that may as well have been earmarked for Nicolas Cage), whose childhood head injury left him incapable of empathy.
The surgery is performed faster than you can yell “neural stem-cell stimulation: commence!” – but when the post-op Jerico fails to immediately remember anything actionable, Wells loses patience and orders him killed. Franks slips him a pill as he’s escorted away, and Jerico suddenly begins to channel Pope’s finely honed superspy skills, bloodily escaping into the streets of London.
There’s some “Freaky Fleming” body-swap comic potential in the scenes that follow, as Jerico’s street thug instincts start to clash with emerging elements of Pope’s personality – he’s surprised to find himself placing a prissy breakfast order in perfect French – but this stretch mostly sees our hero brutally beating up random British civilians. Remembering Pope’s old address and security code, Jerico breaks into his house and seems poised to rape his widow, Jill (Gadot), only to find rushes of unfamiliar emotions have left him incapable of harming her or Pope’s daughter, Emma (Lara Decaro).
The rest of the film devolves into a series of setpieces, as Jerico eludes both the CIA and a clutch of Eurotrash henchmen, trying to make sense of scattered clues that flash through his head. Director Vromen is clearly shooting for a style reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” films — quick cutting between jumpy action and CCTV feeds, with handheld cameras suggesting passerby perspectives — but the effect is more distracting than stirring. Struggling to generate much tension, the film opts for sensory battery in the action scenes, rendering gunshots as loud as cannon fire and splashing blood every which way.
The various shootouts are nonetheless snappy enough to satisfy most genre fans, but the film ends up far out of its element trying to plumb more philosophical depths, as Jerico experiences his first flashes of affection and empathy while reconnecting with Pope’s family, saddened to realize he’ll soon slip back into his old ways. Gadot and Costner both try their best to sell these odd domestic scenes, but Douglas Cook and David Weisberg’s screenplay doesn’t give them much room to work. The two writers penned one of the most lovably lunkheaded actioners of the 1990s — Michael Bay’s “The Rock” — but similar humor is in short supply here, unless you count such odd schoolboy gags as giving a family-man secret agent “6969” as a debit card PIN.