Kevin Costner should stop trying to be so nice.
His best performances have been as baddies. His laconic and ruthless kidnapper in Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World” (1993) deserved an Oscar nomination more than that oozily earnest protagonist of “Dances With Wolves” (1990). So it’s good to see the man’s inner ogre unleashed again in his portrayal of death row inmate Jerico Stewart, the title malefactor in Ariel Vromen’s otherwise lackluster thriller “Criminal.”
“Anyone who hurts me,” Costner’s Stewart says in a craggy Clint murmur over the opening scene, “I hurt back. Worse.”
Yeah! Welcome back!
But first, the good guy Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). An agent on assignment in London, he is such a nice fellow that he takes a call from his wife, Jill (Gal Gadot), and sweet-talks her and his daughter while being pursued by assassins. Nice guys finish last, Billy, and that’s why you end up with a cattle prod down your throat, giving new meaning to the term “glowing cheeks.”
Pope dies with crucial information that will save the world from an insane Spanish anarchist (how timely — for the late 19th century), but enough remains of his brain to transfer his memories, and more, to another, expendable human subject — namely, Stewart. The transfer will be performed by Dr. Franks (or they could just have called him Frankenstein) and it’s an experimental process that. . . zzzz.
Sorry, I just drifted into flashbacks of the hundreds of movies that have already used this device (a favorite: the 1976 “Freaky Friday”). Anyhow, played by Tommy Lee Jones, whose face looks like a sad, kindly lunar surface, Dr. Franks and Jill are the only empathetic people in the movie. In other words, it’s taking a wrong turn.
The experiment is a success — mostly. As a result, Stewart is reborn, or perhaps re-Bourne — with the fading consciousness, skills, and — oh no! — feelings of the late operative.
So enjoy while you can the classic moments of sardonic transgression in the first part of the movie. One thing you learn quickly is that Stewart doesn’t like to wait in line and has no respect for private property.
Kevin, why don’t they just let you be bad as you want to be?
Directed by Ariel Vromen. Written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg. Starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Ryan Reynolds, Tommy Lee Jones, Gal Gadot. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 113 minutes. R (strong violence and language throughout).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.