I ought to have ragged on Kevin Costner’s 3 Days to Kill when I watched it on DVD; it’s a truly Bessonian disaster area which can’t make its mind up if it’s a gritty thriller or hassled-dad comedy and winds up making a mess of both ideas while spending Luc Besson’s usual stunts budget of one million zlotys. It was plainly intended as Kevin Costner’s pitch for the lucrative Liam Neeson second life as a bad-ass geriatric, and then it made a big crater at the box office and Costner went off to guest star in something even worse for a bit before taking a second stab at it with Criminal, a movie so dumb I couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t made by Europa Corp.
It looked promising in the trailers, what with Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman being prominent. How bad, I asked myself, could a movie with those two guys in it really be? Pretty damned bad, it turns out. For starters, Costner, Jones and Oldman don’t come cheap, and by the time they’d cut those cheques, there wasn’t much left for stunts. Or writers. Or the quality control that it might have taken to stick a decal on an idling helicopter to make it look like it had a US registration, the way it would have had if it was actually on the tarmac at a US airbase instead of being the production’s sole helicopter sitting on a UK runway hoping no-one would notice the slip.
So there’s nothing else for it but to hope that the actors will earn their money. Not as much as I’d like. Tommy Lee Jones looked like they’d dug him for the weekend. Oldman set the knob to “rage” on day one of the shoot and then threw the knob away. Oldman can be fun when he’s mad, but the key to it is how good he is at crazy-mad, not angry-mad. Costner, bless him, tried to stretch himself. He rarely plays anything other than loveable everydogs, and in Criminal he starts out as a psycho and then tries to turn himself believably into something more loveable. It doesn’t work, but at least he put in the effort.
In the end, they’re all let down by the material. It’s all built off the notion that the CIA can transplant someone’s mind into some other guy, so as to make sure a crucial mission is completed. There have been a load of movies playing with that idea, and there seem to me to be two secrets to making it work. The first is to commit thoroughly to the madness, as John Woo did in Face/Off, and the second is to throw enough preposterous action at the screen that the preposterous idea at the middle of the plot doesn’t look too far out of place. That’s where Criminal went wrong; not enough money to make the movie all crazy all the time, and not enough commitment to the idea. Instead they try to keep things low-key and gritty, which just leaves the madness looking way too mad for everything else around it.
If I had to sum up how it all goes horribly wrong, I’d start with the fact that Ryan Reynolds has an almost uncredited role as the spy that Costner is taking over from, and going on the few minutes he gets before being all murdered, I’d have had a lot more fun watching a movie which was all about him instead of all the other dudes.
The other bad sign is that they found a way to shoot it in London without letting London be in any way a character in the movie. I’ve watched a succession of even worse movies struggle to make Bulgaria look like London; Criminal makes London look like Bulgaria which is perversely impressive.