“They stuck his brain in me.” Jill (Gal Gadot) looks hard at Jerico (Kevin Costner), whom she’s discovered in her basement, stitching up his gashed arm, blood everywhere. As the intruder looks up at her, Jill goes through a series of responses in the span of a minute, from horrified to scared to skeptical to intrigued. Jerico goes on: “They’re looking for details about where your husband stashed a guy before he was killed.”
In any other universe, Jerico’s story would be ludicrous. In Criminal, however, Jill takes it seriously. Tears in her eyes, missing her husband and all too aware that her young daughter Emma (Lara Decaro) is upstairs watching TV, she tries to believe. You know, of course, that she has to believe.
Jerico has indeed undergone a wacky surgery whereby he receives the memories of Jill’s CIA agent husband Billy (Ryan Reynolds). Compelled by the CIA, embodied here by Wells (Gary Oldman), the odiously named Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) rationalizes his procedure — performed entirely against Jerico’s will — by noting the patient is the property of the state (he’s a federal prisoner) and the survivor of a childhood brain trauma that left his frontal lobes blank and so, ready to absorb surgically installed memories — or some such nonsense.
That this nonsense grounds the story is not in itself a deal-breaker. Like Jill, you’re inclined to go with it, because that’s what you do when watching movies. But Criminal has an especially hard time sorting it out, beyond making sure you see that pretty much everyone in sight is some kind of criminal, from Jerico, the doctor, and the CIA, to the pasty-white, red-eyed Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who’s hacked into the entire US weapons system, and the magnificently named anarcho-terrorist who wants access, Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla), not to mention his silky-lover-cruel-henchperson Elsa (Antje Traue). Of course this terrible world is premised on a surfeit of surveillance technologies, granting oh so many views of car chases and explosions and beatdowns, as well as locations all over London (the SOAS Library at the University of London, an airbase in Cardiff).
Most of these action scenes involve Jerico, as his ostensibly innate genius for violence is now amplified by Billy’s intelligence. As he lurches about, his still bleeding stitches in the back of his head repeatedly visible, Jerico is plainly another iteration of Frankenstein’s monster, a point underlined by the surgery scene, showcasing open skulls and anxious doctors. But he’s more than that too, a walking mashup of Bourne meets Laura Mars meets Charly meets Self/Less (in which Ryan Reynolds was the recipient of a dead man’s memories, which may or may not say something about what he looks for in scripts).
This raft of precursors dictates where Jerico is headed. Turns out the effects of the procedure can’t be guaranteed to last or even much predicted. Turns out that the CIA isn’t much invested in saving him or Billy’s family when Xavier predictably targets them. You can feel bad for poor Jerico, as he’s grabbing at his aching head when he’s beset by Billy’s good memories, rendered here in pretty home-movies-like scenes with Jill on the beach or with baby Emma in the backyard. You can worry for him too, when his old, pre-Billy self takes over, driven to recover a designer duffel bag packed with $10 million of payoff money.
But you might be most frustrated with Jerico as he faces down a story determined to put him into exactly the box he resists so furiously as the ideal candidate for this surgery, an individual without fear or even cognizance of consequences. Now, Dr. Franks assures him, he’ll be better, his responses moderated by “emotions”. And, wait for it… these emotions are all about the girls.
From the first moment Jerico arrives at Jill’s home at night, sneaking into her bedroom, tying her to the headboard, and running his hand up her exposed leg, he’s the worst sort of criminal, presumptive, violating, icky. The suddenly, zapped by a Billy flashback, Jerico (and you) see this hand on her leg as something else, as a sign of affection and intimacy. Or again, when he sneaks into the backyard and plays with Emma or starts playing piano with her, Jill is at an increasing loss to define her own spaces, to tell the difference between Billy and this other guy.
In these moments, the film makes clear that Jill, who’s really good at protecting her body, her home, and her child, adept with a gun and fully able to function even while grieving her loss, is nonetheless turned into a plot point, the occasion for Jerico’s redemptive process. Again? Really? Let’s just say that Wonder Woman had better be a hell of a movie.