Look up ‘hidden gem’ in the dictionary and you’ll find a one sheet for Gregory Jacobs’s Criminal. Alongside many others, but you catch my drift. This is a virtually unknown grifter flick that is smart, funny and really acidic and unpredictable in spots. It also has that low key ‘small movie’ feel, which is welcome in a con artist flick anyways because you can ditch the big budget gloss and focus more on story and character instead. John C. Reilly plays a middle aged con man here who, simply put, is a huge asshole, but has charmed his way through the hustling game and made some serious cash. He’s saddled with a rookie youngster (Diego Luna) who wants to learn the ropes, but the old guy basically wants nothing to do with him. It’s a sour partnership that never seems to quite gel, which provides suspense as to when the back stabbing will start. With the help of a feisty colleague (Maggie Gyllenhaal), their plan is to rob a wealthy, intimidating Scottish currency collector (the great Peter Mullan) for millions, using a carefully implemented bag of tricks and a vast contact network of fellow tricksters. As is the case with all great caper flicks, nothing is as it seems and the plot revelations are fast and heavy, in this one’s case packing a whallop of an unconventional twist ending. The terrific supporting cameo cast includes Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Brent Sexton, Michael Shannon, Malik Yoba, character actor Jack Conley and more. This is a hugely entertaining film, with an unlikeable protagonist whose arc is really a curious one to watch. Director Jacobs has only helmed two other flick, the Magic Mike sequel and the Emily Blunt horror vehicle Wind Chill, but he really shows a flair for fun exposition and labyrinthine plot turns here, as well as bringing out interesting qualities in his carefully picked actors. Steven Soderbergh also did uncredited screenplay work, which only adds to the capability and slickness. A treat.
Ariel Vroman’s Criminal does its best to pay homage to beloved pseudo science fiction genre films of the nineties like Face/Off or Eraser, and for the most part it succeeds. All the elements are in place: padded, eclectic cast, implausibly sketchy high concept brain tampering, slick anti-terrorist war games, a brash arch-villain and adorably clunky emotional interludes. When a deep cover agent (Ryan Reynolds, weirdly uncredited) is killed in London, his FBI handler (Gary Oldman), has a shit fit at the lost secrets he knew and commissions Dr. Tommy Lee Jones to use sketchy cutting edge science and transfer Reynold’s memories into another man’s cerebrum. Of course they choose some violent, irreparably damaged convict, namely Jericho Stuart, played with growling, feral panache by Kevin Costner. “You hurt me, I hurt you back worse”, is this deeply sociopathic dude’s mantra, and it’s expectedly hilarious that the bureau shoots themselves in the foot by picking such a wild card for the program, but there you have it. With new memories, Jericho’s basic primal instinct is diluted with emotional scar tissue from Reynolds, haunted by his former wife (Gal Gadot, terrific), as well as a host of clandestine secrets from Ryan’s noggin that propel him on a globetrotting (well, London trotting, really) excursion to bring down a radical cyber criminal (Jordi Molla, the Spanish Gary Oldman, coincidentally sharing the screen with his counterpart). This is the Kevin Costner show all the way, it’s really the best work I’ve seen from him in years. He would have been way better taking the antagonist route with his career, as showcased here. Jericho is a bitter, psychotic outsider and Kevin plays it up royally, dishing out bone smashing beatdowns on random pedestrians and calling anyone he sees a ‘fucker’. Oldman yells at everything, and I mean everything. It’s like there were cue notes next to his lines that said ‘just scream your lines the whole way through’, but he’s fun too, that early career intensity showing through his weathered gaze. Michael Pitt also shows up with a hysterical Dutch accent, doing the boy with the dragon tattoo hacker shtick, looking pale and sullen. The cloak and dagger stuff is uproariously silly, as it should be, the emotional core appropriately sappy too. Smart move in keeping the hard R action movie alive, unlike some movies we know (I’m casting a disgusted look over at Expendable 3), and indeed Kevin gets some overly bloody kills in that fulfill the carnage quota and then some. He kicks ass, Oldman hollers, Reynolds cameos, Gadot cries, Jones looks weary, and so it goes. Not a total slam dunk, but it will make you feel nostalgic for those good old Sly/Armie/Van Damme blitzkriegs of yore.