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'Criminal' review: Memory-mash-up sci-fi forgets to be fun

This tale of memories transplanted into a psychopath's mind riffs on "Robocop" and "Face/Off", but lacks a sense of sci-fi wit.

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Kevin Costner plays the psychopathic Jerico Stewart in "Criminal".

Lionsgate

If you're considering joining a law enforcement agency, it may be worth checking your contract for clauses about memories being harvested from your corpse and implanted into the head of a convicted psychopath.

Such diligence could have saved a lot of bother in "Criminal" for Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds), a London-dwelling, family-oriented CIA operative who has the audacity to die with undivulged intel still knocking around his frontal lobe. Pope's boss, played with gusto by a relentlessly shouty Gary Oldman, has no choice but to call in Tommy Lee Jones' Dr. Franks, a scientist who's cracked the science of transferring memories from a dead mammal to a live one.

But wait! In another twist, we soon learn that death-row psychopath Jerico Stewart, a bearded and grunting Kevin Costner, is the only candidate with the right kind of brain for the transfer. That's because (and brain scientists will surely be nodding their agreement here) he has lots of spare brain space because he never learned how to feel emotions. The transfer goes ahead, but things go wrong after the operation when Jerico goes bananas and kills his way out of CIA custody.

Plagued by flashes from Pope's past, a frothing Costner is left to shamble through Britain's capital like an irascible badger with an advanced case of rabies. He punches people for no reason, he rifles through cupboards in search of food and, in a visceral act of psychopathy, pushes to the front of several clearly marked queues. As Pope's memories take hold, Jerico is sucked into a race to find a Dark Web hacker known as "The Dutchman", before his code for taking control of the entire US military network falls into the hands of a power-hungry anarchist.

The battle with memory riffs on "Robocop", and all the pieces are in place for a schlocky sci-fi romp in the vein of "Face/Off". But unlike these two touchstones, "Criminal" never manages to lean into its ludicrous premise in the way you'd hope. Instead director Ariel Vroman (who helmed 2012's "The Iceman") keeps the tone dark, gritty and overly straight-faced, in a blue-tinged slog through London's streets that's punctuated by bursts of extreme violence.

In one downright unpleasant scene, the murderous Jerico's implanted memories cause him to pay an unwelcome visit to Pope's grieving widow (Gal Gadot). The camera lingers on her legs as she lies terrified, gagged and bound.

Gadot may already be most famous for getting stuck in as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice", but she's given nothing so proactive to do in "Criminal", her character existing merely to be imperilled, and to provoke clumsy emotional developments in Jerico as Pope's heartwarming memories stir in his cruel killer's mind. Towering talents Costner and Oldman aren't much fun to watch here either, while Jones' downbeat scientist spends the whole film looking, as my mum would say, like his rabbit's died.

There are certainly enjoyable moments, including a shootout on London's rotating Connaught Bridge, and it's to Vroman's credit that as the CIA, Russians and terrorists pile in on the action, the fast-moving narrative remains comprehensible. British viewers will also enjoy the sight of Kevin Costner getting lairy in a knock-off Chicken Cottage, and some unintentionally hilarious phrasing (a yob who's having his van stolen angrily notes, "That's bang out of order!" and a coffee-drinking hipster shrieks the immortal line, "Who punches someone in the patisserie? You animal!").

Ultimately, "Criminal" isn't sensible enough to be an enjoyable thriller, or fun enough to live in the tradition of daft, memory-melding sci-fi.

"Criminal" opens Friday in the UK and US.