MOVIE BUFF-ET: Blockbusters, TV dramas trap Criminal between a rock and a hard place


It is the age of tent-pole films, blockbusters that stake out a place for sequels and spinoffs in spectacular, crowd-pleasing fashion. That makes it tough on less ambitious movies like Kevin Costner’s latest, Criminal.

Twenty years ago, the movie would have been considered a big-time movie, sporting such stars a Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, and Ryan Reynolds in supporting roles with starlets Gal Gadot and Alice Eve on board for good measure. However, super-hero flicks, sci-fi franchises and adaptions of young-adult novels rule the box office roost today.

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It’s not at all ironic that each one of Criminal’s stars has picked up a check in one or more blockbuster franchises. Costner’s is Superman’s Earthly dad, while Oldman is best buds with Batman and Harry Potter as Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black respectively. Reynolds failed to lauch as Green Lantern, but he hit a home run earlier this year as Deadpool. Jones played a cackling Two Face in Batman Forever back in the 1990s, and Alice Eve had a key role in the latest Star Trek film. Gadot is the big screen’s first Wonder Woman.

Making matters worse, Criminal opens at a time when drama owns television in a way that it never has. There are more quality shows on television that provide actors with meatier, character-driven roles on any given week of television than there are in a whole year of movies.

Between the super-heroics on the big screen and the quality dramas on the tube, a solid but unspectacular popcorn movie like Criminal gets squashed.

Costner is compelling in the role of Jericho Stewart, a sociopathic murderer, who is one part Charles Mason and one part Ted Bundy, before he is enlisted as the subject of a medical experiment that embeds the memory of Reynolds’ CIA operative in his brain.

Stewart’s chosen for the operation because a childhood injury left his brain underdeveloped. However, the trauma left a bevy of unused stem cells in his frontal lobe that should allow the transfer of memory to be a possibility. Yes, even this movie as a sci-fi conceit.

Before he was rendered brain dead, Reynolds held information that is critical for his mission to be successful. World peace hangs in the balance, and Oldman will stop at nothing to get to it.

With Jones at the scalpel, the operation works, but the amoral Stewart makes a harrowing escape just as Reynolds’s memories and emotions begin to overwhelm him. Those memories send him on a collision course with Gadot, Reynolds’s wife, and their young daughter. Meanwhile Oldman and his operatives seek to track Stewart down in an effort to retrieve that vital piece of information now lodged in his noggin.

The movie isn’t quite as convoluted as the setup sounds, and it’s worth riding the wave for Costner’s performance as he journeys from being a man with no emotion to one who puts his life on the line for others. Gadot’s work is not up to Costner’s quality, but she did allay some of my fears that she lacked the chops to carry next year’s Wonder Woman solo film. I guess everything does revolve back to those blockbusters.

By today’s standards, Criminal is nothing all that special. There are strong performances throughout the film, and enough action to please, but it can’t match the spectacle of tent-pole films or the depth of character development of the best TV dramas. That’s a dilemma many movies face in today’s viewership marketplace.

Grade: C

Classics Corner

Purple Rain

With the untimely death of Prince, 57, on Thursday, I imagine I’m not the only one who thought about Purple Rain. The film and the album rocketed the already rising star into the stratosphere in 1984, and the artist never looked back.

The plot is fairly traditional, but the content is not. It was a racy movie for its time, but the reason to watch the movie again is for the extended concert sequences of Prince and Morris Day and The Time. Prince was as electric in the film as he was in his concert performances. Purple Rain won an Academy Award for Best Original Score and featured such classics as the title cut, “When Doves Cry”, and “I Would Die 4 U.”

No Way Out

The summer of 1987 was a big one for Kevin Costner with two films opening within weeks of each other. The Untouchables, a fine remake of the old radio and TV cops and robbers show, received most of the buzz, and it is a worthy movie with great supporting performances by Sean Connery and an almost unrecognizable Robert De Niro as the rotund gangster Al Capone. However, the other film, No Way Out, is an excellent thriller that packs a walloping ending that made me want to turn right around and watch the movie again.

Costner plays U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Ferrell during the height of the Cold War. He is brought to work at the Pentagon under the direction of Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman) with the mission to ferret out a Soviet spy. Ferrell quickly becomes entangled in an affair with a lively and lovely woman named Susan Atwell (Sean Young). Any more of a setup would ruin the movie that features strong performances by the aforementioned trio as well as Will Patton as Scott Pritchard.

All these years later, it remains one of Costner’s best films, and that’s saying a lot.

On the Waterfront

If you want to see the best film playing on the big screens locally, you’ll only have two opportunities this week. In conjunction with Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies, the Malco Razorback Theater in Fayetteville will play On the Waterfront at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday. The classic 1954, film stars Marlon Brando as dockworker Terry Malloy, a former boxer who “coulda been a contenda,” in a Elia Kazan-directed masterpiece.

Brando’s earthy performance as a longshoreman who wouldn’t stand pat against union violence and corruption won him a Best Actor Oscar, one of eight the film garnered after receiving 12 Academy Award nominations. The movie is generally considered critics and film historians as one of the best American films ever made. Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger lend all-star support to Brando in one of the key roles that made him an acting legend.