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film review

Kevin Costner in Criminal (2016).Jack English

You don't go to spy thrillers looking for verisimilitude, so audiences shouldn't have any problem accepting the sci-fi premise of Criminal: The CIA gets a doctor to implant the brain impulses of a dying agent into a sociopathic convict so that the agency can retrieve some missing info. Sure, why not? The fact that the spooks promptly succeed in losing their modified madman … well, many of us are all too happy to believe that the CIA is wildly incompetent.

No, it's not really the outlandish plot of this thriller – in which Ryan Reynolds plays the agent with the info and Kevin Costner plays the crazed convict – that's the drawback. The disappointment here is that an intriguing psychological premise about a personality swap is never used to do anything more than provide the juice for a run-of-the-mill action movie.

Agent Bill Pope (Reynolds) is running about London trying to secure a deal with a Dutch hacker (Michael Pitt) who apparently controls the entire U.S. military arsenal from his laptop. The hacker is on the run from his former master, a crazed Spanish anarchist. Spanish actor Jordi Molla does a tidy job creating a quietly nasty character.

The anarchist and his even more chilling henchwoman (Antje Traue) capture Pope, torture him and leave him for dead. Now, if the CIA station chief (Gary Oldman) wants to know where the hacker is hiding with the nuclear codes, he needs back in Pope's brain. So he brings in a doctor (Tommy Lee Jones) who is working on transplanting brains between rats and gets him to hook up the dying Pope to Jericho Stewart – that's Costner, plausibly expanding his range in the role of a psychopathic killer who is conveniently missing his frontal lobe.

Okay, so the neurologists in the audience will have walked out of the theatre in disgust by this point, but the rest of us should still be following along as Jericho escapes his handlers and winds up instinctively going after Pope's terrified widow (Gal Gadot). But it's here that, as gun battles erupt and cars drive off bridges, the interesting stuff goes missing.

Yes, Costner does make a nice psycho and also, under the direction of Ariel Vromen, carefully tracks the change from amoral, brain-damaged thug to loving family man/whip-smart secret agent. But as everybody chases about London in pursuit of Jericho, or the hacker, or the evil Spaniard, the psychological terror of finding yourself experiencing someone else's memories – or the trauma of discovering that your recently deceased husband is somehow living in another man's body – are little more than missed opportunities.

The scenes with Gadot do no justice to the dramatic truths of bereavement or fear while, as the CIA boss, Oldman is never given the space to really examine the man's disastrous impatience. Neither scriptwriters Douglas Cook and David Weisberg nor Vromen in the director's chair are subtle enough to figure out how to do both action and character. After the inevitable explosions of the climax, the whole thing ends on a limp, sentimental note that has headed-to-VOD written all over it.