Fusing elements of an unnerving psychological battle and mind-twisting sci-fi with the classic cat-and-mouse espionage game.
Criminal questions what happens when the CIA’s only hope to stop a terrorist threat to the nuclear arsenal lies in the dark, unpredictable recesses of a criminal’s damaged mind?
Kevin Costner plays an unpredictable and dangerous death-row inmate and tells the story of the right man in the wrong body.
Directed by Israeli director Ariel Vroman, the propulsive story begins when CIA agent Bill Pope is tragically killed in the middle of an urgent, top-secret mission. He’s been tracking the brilliant hacker known as “The Dutchman” (Michael Pitt), who, while navigating the lawless Dark Web, has uncovered the means to take charge of the entire weaponry of the U.S. military’s Central Command.
Vromen – who came to the fore with the chilling crime story The Iceman – saw in Criminal’s action-packed story a chance to create a hybrid: to fuse elements of an unnerving psychological battle and mind-twisting sci-fi with the classic cat-and-mouse espionage game.
With Pope’s death, every vital piece of information he’s discovered about The Dutchman and his whereabouts is wiped out forever. Dead men tell no tales. Or do they?
As Kevin Costner says: “It used to be dead men went to the grave with their secrets but as we unlock the inner workings of the brain, and as science progresses, we know it may soon be possible to transfer the memories of one person to another – and the implications are vast.”
That is why the CIA’s relentless London chief, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), embarks on an unprecedented medical intervention – an experimental surgery that might implant Pope’s DNA directly into the synapses of another man’s brain. He recruits the maverick neurosurgeon, Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), who in turn finds the one person who might be able to absorb Pope’s memories: a treacherously unhinged death-row convict named Jerico Stewart (Costner), whose childhood brain damage makes him unpredictable yet an ideal candidate. Left without empathy or emotions, Jerico might provide a blank slate for taking on Pope’s memories.
In a last-ditch effort to stop a diabolical plot, a dead CIA operative’s memories, secrets, and skills are implanted into an unpredictable and dangerous death-row inmate in hopes the he will complete the operative’s mission.
He was drawn to the story’s scientifically provocative central idea: memory transfer, the ability to lock a person’s most intimate and individual sensations, hopes and flashbacks into a total stranger’s brain.
Though amnesia and memory loss have long been staples of the cinematic thriller, this story came at it in an opposite way. For Criminal is the story of a man gaining memories that both put him on a collision course with a terrorist and change the very foundations of who he believes he is.
Says Vromen: “Our main character, Jerico, is a person who starts with no feelings and no real emotions and then he goes on an incredible journey. He acquires all these memories from CIA agent Bill Pope’s mind and he has to react to an entirely new view of life. Because of the massively high stakes, that core emotional story is surrounded by a plot that has great suspense and lots of action. That really appealed to me.”
The mix of searing, high-octane action with the psychological intensity of a man trying to figure out if he is killer or savior was irresistible. “This is a big thriller. We have massive action sequences with cars, helicopter and the huge Airbus 400, along with intense fight scenes and excitement,” Vromen points out. “However, I believe today’s audiences are also looking for something beyond thrilling explosions and car crashes. I felt the unique journey of Jerico’s growth into a different person could be just as exciting as the non-stop action.”
The futuristic, yet science-based, concepts that lie behind Criminal emerged from the minds of the screenwriting team of Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously wrote the hit prison escape thriller The Rock, among others.
Cook and Weisberg became intrigued by cutting-edge research in neurobiology, brain architecture and artificial intelligence which suggests that the processes that make up our innermost minds might soon be mappable – and consciousness itself might become transferable from one human mind to a machine or even another human being. Some people call it the development of Humanity 2.0.
“We are very interested in the work of futurist Ray Kurzweil,” says Weisberg, referring to the computer scientist and inventor who has become renown for his bold predictions about how coming scientific revolutions and artificial intelligence will change humanity forever.
“Kurzweil talks a lot about who and what we are as human beings,” Weisberg goes on. “He has this concept that all we are is the summation of our memories. And those memories are nothing more than connections in the brain – so when find a way to fully map those connections it should be possible to reproduce them in another medium. That was part of our inspiration. But the medium we have chosen in this movie is not a computer. The medium is another human being, giving us the intriguing idea of ‘memory transfer.’ This technology has almost arrived, and we believe it is close enough to actually be possible.”
The writers embarked on intensive research, uncovering scientists who are exploring early stages of the surgery imposed on Jerico in Criminal. Already, scientists have accomplished gene transfers into animal brain neurons and started making comprehensive maps of an individual brain’s neurons, gene expression states and electro-chemical signals, suggesting a brave new world of neurological manipulation lies on the horizon.
“We did a lot of research and, in the build up to production, Ariel also spent a lot of time talking to some scientists in Japan who are pursuing this very research. This is something that is remarkably close to happening one day in real life,” Weisberg notes.
The science might be fresh and evolving, but the idea hooks into timeless themes that have been fascinating humankind for ages – from who we are if our memories are obliterated to the dream of bringing the dead back to life – and that set the team’s imaginations reeling. They began to envision a character unlike any other, a criminal whose frontal lobes were so badly damaged they left him full of violent rage and devoid of feeling for others … until he suddenly gets his first chance at deep human emotions in the midst of an all-out run for his life.
“It’s a kind of modern ‘Frankenstein’ concept,” commented Cook. “We were intrigued by the idea of what happens if you take a very damaged monster and actually start to humanize him through the effects of this memory transfer. What happens to a criminal when he starts having the feelings associated with a CIA agent’s memories? For someone like Jerico, damaged at a young age … this is a revolution within him.”
“For us the magic of this movie is allowing audiences to take a journey with this horrible man who uncovers a heart and a soul through the course of the story. One of the tragedies of Jerico is that before he had the memory transfer, he was oblivious. But now, he realizes what a monster he had been and he doesn’t want to be that “thing” any more… yet he is aware that the operation he had is not forever and the monster will return. As we wrote, we focused on delivering huge action but also on the transformation of this character.”
When executive producer Avi Lerner, founder of Millennium Films, read the completed screenplay, he was riveted by the rocketing pace and suspense, by the story’s rich array of spies, doctors, hackers and convicts — and especially by the mind-boggling implications for a future in which memories may no longer be private and personal possessions.
“Immediately we liked the concept of a real-life, scientifically-based transfer between good and evil,” Lerner says. “And then you have all the elements of the espionage action. It’s really a unique thriller and maybe even a little risky. Who could believe that very soon you will be able to take DNA in one brain and transfer it to another person? We can’t say when it will happen but we know now that it is likely around the corner.”
Lerner was gratified to give Vromen a shot at his biggest, most star-studded production yet. “What I really like about Ariel is that he is very sensitive. This is an action-packed, fun movie but at the same time, he captures the emotions in every moment,” says the executive producer.
Cook says, “We’ve had a lot of fun working with Ariel in shaping the script because he was so keyed into the characters. As a director, he has an artist’s temperament, which is compelling on an action movie. On the one hand he totally delivers on the action and it is a really fun ride. At the same time, he gets into the idea of how memory shapes us – and that is so unusual for this kind of picture.”
The excitement for Weisberg and Cook mounted as the cast began to take shape. “Ariel brought together a fabulous cast,” sums up Weisberg. “Kevin has really embraced Jerico and takes this chance to show people a very new Kevin Costner; we were amazed by what he did.”