“They messed with my brain,” goes the growling voice-over at the start of “Criminal,” a pulpy action flick with a mean streak. “I don’t know what happens next, but this I do know. You hurt me, I hurt you worse.”
It’s point-blank prose straight out of Charles Willeford or James Ellroy, and it sets an aspirational tone for this violent thriller. “Criminal” never quite clears its own bar — it wants to be shocking and feels mostly generic — but it’s blessed with the top-tier talent of Kevin Costner. He plays against type as Jericho Stewart, a felon without a decent bone in his body. As for his brain, well, that’s another matter.
An amoral murderer with a rare form of frontal-lobe damage, Jericho is dragged from his prison cell for an emergency medical procedure: His brain will be injected with the memories of a dead CIA agent, Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). It sort of works, to the delight of Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), but not well enough to satisfy CIA honcho Quaker Wells (an enjoyably high-strung Gary Oldman). One side effect is that Jericho, to his great consternation, begins acquiring Pope’s better qualities, including emotions, empathy and — gasp! — manners.
Reynolds just starred in a movie like this, “Self/Less,” about an older man whose consciousness is transferred to a healthy young body. Reynolds is even less noteworthy here than he was there. Costner, however, is a treat. Grizzled, grunting and usually bleeding, he tromps through the movie killing bad guys and bystanders without remorse.
Granted, there’s a lot of hokum to sit through, including a computer-hacking plot, the usual European mastermind (Jordi Mollà as the Spanish anarchist Heimdahl), and Gal Gadot in the opposite of her Wonder Woman role: the sad and sexy widow.
Effectively directed by Ariel Vromen from a script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, “Criminal” isn’t quite as vicious, or as fun, as it could be. Like Jericho himself, it’s approximately half-bad.