Westerners have killed the concept of reincarnation far too many times. The new sci-fi thriller Criminal, in which modern science gives a bad dude another crack at life, isn’t openly spiritual in any way. But it is a reincarnation film at heart, marinating in the past lives of other movies (Face/Off, Self/Less) that stick one person inside another person. Criminal gameifies the idea of a movie as an “empathy machine” in an unsavory way: The otherwise irredeemable figure at its center finds redemption by swapping out the worst part of his self with the best part of someone else’s.
Kevin Costner — who, through the peaks and valleys of his career, has proven to be Hollywood’s master of the death-rebirth cycle — plays Jericho, a prison inmate whose total lack of a moral compass makes him the perfect test subject. His frontal lobe had been damaged as a child, we learn, rendering him a Phineas Gage-like figure: totally unable to distinguish between right and wrong, or to respond to discipline. We don’t see Jericho actually exhibiting this exceedingly rare neurological malady, though, because immediately after his condition is explained, he’s whisked off to London by Gary Oldman’s grizzled CIA director and the world’s most gentle mad scientist (Tommy Lee Jones), who stick a dead agent’s memories in the missing part of his brain in order to catch a cyber-terrorist. The dead agent, played by Ryan Reynolds in a glorified cameo, is named “Bill Pope,” and let’s pretend that’s an homage to the cinematographer, because it’s more fun that way.
What happens next, well, let’s just say it’s fitting for a movie about half a brain. Jericho’s not a Jekyll-and-Hyde split personality — it’s more that as he recalls generic goodness from the dude now sharing his cerebral cortex, those memories slowly turn him into a better person, even though we never had a clear sense of what kind of person he was to begin with. His new memories give him some French skills and the flickerings of a conscience, though not all at once, which is why he first murders several government agents and starts cutting a wide swath of destruction through London. Director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) and co-writers Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock) don’t seem to know what kind of man they’ve created, which is supposed to be the characters’ concern, not the filmmakers’.
Still a wanted criminal, Jericho nevertheless prances across London at will, occasionally tracking down Jones’ doctor to babble about how much his head hurts. Costner, who spends the whole movie with an unpleasant surgery hole in the back of his neck, gives a confusing performance: giddy and cracking wise when he’s behaving badly, even though he’s not supposed to be aware of the moral choices he’s making (so how could he be excited when he, say, steals a car?). At least he seems to be having fun while he renders an ever-more-incoherent meaning to the phrase “out of character.” Jericho’s brief Bill-visions are limited to the usual home movies, like long strolls on the beach with his wife — images that offer him no practical argument for good deeds beyond the promise of a pretty face at the other end. Somehow, a redemptive arc that the filmmakers force on their hero through total frontal lobotomy has trouble feeling natural.