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Criminal •••

Criminal_2016_posterStarring: Kevin CostnerRyan ReynoldsGal Gadot
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenplay: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it looks like Kevin Costner is letting things go to his head.

It’s a sort of “Face/Off” between a “Self/Less” Ryan Reynolds and a “Criminal.” Let’s recap.

In London we meet CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). After obtaining a big duffle bag full of money and a passport, Pope is followed, captured, tortured, and killed by a team of enemy agents led by Elsa Mueller (Antje Traue). Upon learning of Pope’s death, CIA chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) orders a brain surgeon, Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), to perform an experimental procedure on imprisoned sociopath Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).

The surgery plants the memories of the dead Agent Pope in Jericho’s mind. But strangely, it also plants Pope’s kindness and love for his wife and child. Jericho escapes his CIA captors and goes in search of the money. He arrives at Pope’s residence where Pope’s wife and child are sleeping. It turns out that the mind implant has a time limit. The chase is on – will the CIA find Jericho before he finds the money, and will Pope harm the innocent wife and child?

Greg, in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss the crucial role of character transformation in hero stories. People identify most with heroes who undergo significant growth and change during the story. The movie Criminal tries to make the most of this idea by featuring a hero, Jericho, who transforms from a psychopath into a warm, caring individual, and who then begins transforming back into his original psychopathic state. Stories like this are as old as Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and The Werewolf.

Does Criminal succeed as a story? Yes and no. One problem is that this film forgets that the most powerful heroes change willingly as a result of learning from difficult, painful circumstances. Criminal is about a hero, Jericho, who doesn’t change willingly. He only changes through involuntary surgical alteration to his brain. His evolving goodness stems from mental implants from Bill Pope, who doesn’t stick around long enough as a character for us to really bond with him. So while we enjoy seeing Jericho become a good person, we know it really isn’t Jericho changing on his own. For me, that detracts a bit from the appeal of the story.

You make a good point, Scott. I’m also going to take a chapter from our book and talk a bit about anti-heroes. Jericho looks like an anti-hero because he starts out as a very bad individual. He has no empathy and so can commit the most heinous of crimes. I likened him to Charles Manson. In fact, this movie really felt like it was asking the question “What if we gave Charlie Manson a moral core?”

Many people have called Jericho an anti-hero because he is so villainous. But in our taxonomy of heroism, a hero (or villain) is determined by the way he ends up in the story – not how he starts out. We define an anti-hero as someone who starts out bad and ends up bad (like a villain) but is the main character of the story. We may not like him, but he *is* the lead character. Since Jericho ultimately takes on the good qualities of Bill Pope, he is heroic at the end of the story – so we call him a Redeemed Hero.

Yes, he’s redeemed, and the tension at the end of the movie revolves around the question of whether Jericho’s redemption will vanish or remain permanent. We’re led to believe that it’s hopeless for him in the long term, and the issue appears moot as he appears to bite the dust at the end. The happy ending is contrived yet nonetheless satisfying.

So we have an interesting hero’s journey that is made possible by two men: Wells, the man who needs someone with Pope’s knowledge to stop the Dutchman, and Franks, the surgeon who physically makes it possible for our hero to enter his unfamiliar world. I wouldn’t call either of these men “mentors” but they do cast our hero on his journey. In a sense, Jericho’s mentor is Pope’s memories and warmth — they both serve him well in that they save his life and provide him with the ability to live an emotionally normal life.

True enough. It is Pope’s worldview about good and evil, love and hate, etc… that moves Jericho to do the right things. Although Pope’s wife Jill (Gal Gadot) also helps to direct Jericho. I have to say, this is not the type of mentoring we typically see. Usually the mentor is a past hero and instills the hero with new behavior through lessons and advice. Pope doesn’t really teach our hero – he just acts as a system of memories and a code of ethics.

Criminal is a better movie than last year’s Self/Less. Although that’s not saying a lot. In Self/Less Reynolds inherited the memories of a aging evil capitalist. Gradually, Reynolds’ good memories came through and he saved the girl and his daughter. In Criminal Reynolds give his good thoughts to an evil man who ultimately becomes good. I enjoyed Criminal a lot more than I expected and I can give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jericho makes for an interesting redeemed hero. He starts out as pure evil and is suddenly imbued with the memories of a good man. Jericho does the right thing despite himself. And ultimately stands to lose this new found goodness, but retains enough of it to become a new man – enough perhaps for a sequel. I give Jericho 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I found the mentor characters here were pretty insubstantial. Pope was an inactive set of rules and memories. Jill Pope was more of a damsel in distress than a guide. Dr. Franks imbues Jericho with Pope’s good thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to give him mentor status. I can only give the mentors in this story 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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I hate agreeing with you, Greg, but you’ve summed it up nicely. Criminal is a fairly good movie but not a great movie. It is far-fetched along the lines of this year’s London Has Fallen, but I found Criminal to be a story with more heart than London. We have no business caring for Jericho and yet we do because he possesses a good man’s sense of honor and decency. I agree that this film deserves 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is fascinating and capitalizes on our fascination with heroic transformation. Throughout the movie I found myself looking for signs that Jericho was changing, either for the better or for the worse, depending on which act of the movie I was watching. We have a love interest (Pope’s wife) and a couple of good villains at which we can direct our venom. A rating of 3 Heroes out of 5 seems right to me.

As we’ve noted, the mentor to Jericho is not an actual living person but the memories and feelings of a freshly murdered individual, Pope. Jericho is pretty much on his own, and perhaps that’s how it should be in a movie like this. So the best we can do, it seems, is award a measly 2 Mentors out of 5.

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