It may be difficult to remember now, but Kevin Costner used to be a really big movie star — a top-flight cinematic brand whose name could get movies made and bring millions of viewers to the multiplex to see his face on the big screen. However, as he’s grown older and Hollywood’s business model has changed, Costner has had a hard time maintaining his shine.
His latest film, the sci-fi-tinged action thriller Criminal, plays like an attempt to regain his star status, or at least to reestablish Costner as a viable lead. Instead, this deeply flawed movie serves not only as the latest sign of the fall of the actor's career but as further evidence for the decline of the very idea of movie stardom as it used to exist.
Very minor spoilers for Criminal follow.
Criminal isn't a very good to begin with. It also wastes a solid cast.
In virtually every way, Criminal makes a remarkably poor choice for a star vehicle.
The mostly incoherent story involves a vaguely defined hacker super program that gives its owner control of the entire US military arsenal, up to and including its nuclear weapons. The problem is that only CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) knows where the program and its creator (Michael Pitt) are hiding out — and Pope is murdered by an anarchist (Jordi Mollà) bent on destroying the world’s governments in the film's opening scene.
However, a group of CIA bigwigs led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) still want access to Pope’s memories, and so they enlist the soft-spoken Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to copy them from Pope’s sawed-open brain into the body of Jericho Stewart — a violent, remorseless thug played by Costner.
Even the major plot details are mostly beside the point, though. And they barely make sense anyway: Many scenes appear truncated, and the character motivations are generally illogical. The action is choppy and overaggressive, but never very exciting. Indeed, Criminal is so haphazardly constructed that you wonder if anyone actually bothered to watch the movie all the way through before releasing it.
In theory, a film like this should at least serve as a showcase for its cast. Instead, it's an embarrassing ordeal for everyone involved.
Most of the supporting cast, which includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s put-upon wife, barely register; as with so many action-movie love interests, she’s only present to reflect the protagonist’s troubles back at him. Jones, an actor who brings real gravitas to the right roles, comes across as bored, low-energy, and vaguely confused, which is fair given that most of his scenes involve incomprehensible exposition. (My memory transfer program is five years from human trials, he says. In response, a gruff CIA agent informs him he has 48 hours to make it work.) Oldman is shouty and hysterical, playing every scene with bug-eyed anxiety, as if coming to grips with the sheer awfulness of the film he's in. Reynolds, who dies in the opening sequence, probably fares best because he barely appears in the movie.
Costner doesn't really do anything worthwhile with his so-called starring role
And then there's Costner. This should be his film, and you can see him struggling to make the part meaty and memorable. He speaks in a gravelly growl, but sounds like an old man doing a bad Batman impression. He scowls and stares and chews scenery wildly, trying to make the most of the fact that his character is an unappealing thug who, due to a childhood brain injury, literally cannot feel normal emotions or engage with conventional social cues. "He has a total lack of empathy," we’re told, and he "feels nothing."
Costner, of course, has long been drawn to characters who are jerks, or who struggle with selfishness or personal failings. But those roles were about wrestling with personal demons and, in most cases, overcoming them. Here there's nothing to wrestle with. Pope's nicer personality rarely manifests itself in Jericho, and most of the time when it does, Jericho appears actively annoyed.
That, in turn, makes it hard to feel much for the character. Jericho is not a flawed protagonist, or even a grim antihero. For most of the movie he's just an empty psychopath, a one-note character who delights in tormenting others for no reason at all.
That's the real trouble. Costner isn't just unappealing. He's something far worse: He's uninteresting.
Criminal shows why it's hard for actors like Costner to find good work these days
Movies like Criminal show how hard it is these days for older movie stars like Costner to stay relevant. When Costner first got into the movie business in the 1980s, a film's success was based heavily on star power: Pictures were made and sold to audiences because of their headline talent, and the stars were genres unto themselves. You went to see a Mel Gibson movie or a Harrison Ford film or a Sylvester Stallone picture because of the stars. And those stars would give you a pretty good idea of what you were getting just because of their involvement.
In his heyday, Costner tended toward a combination of likable jerks in movies like Bull Durham and Tin Cup and rugged saviors in films like Dances With Wolves and the notorious flop Waterworld, though you could also find him in terse thrillers like Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World and Tony Scott’s Revenge. What all these movies had in common, though, was that they were built largely around Kevin Costner's performance. They were showcases for a leading actor.
Those sorts of films used to be much more common. And in some cases, successful stars could even direct them on their own, as Costner did with Dances With Wolves (and later, less successfully, with The Postman — another sci-fi flop — and Open Range). But as major studios have dramatically cut down on the number of films they make each year, medium-budget, star-driven films have largely been cut from studio slates in favor of franchises driven by well-known intellectual properties — basically, superhero movies and sequels.
Some of these franchise films have big names attached (think of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man). And performers can certainly increase their profiles by starring in them, as, say, Christian Bale did by starring in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But in nearly every case, the property, not the actor, is the real star. That’s one reason a major franchise like Transformers can reboot with all new actors and still succeed; no one was really going to those movies to see Shia LaBeouf.
You can still find a handful of these star-driven movies each year, but attempts to revive them as a regular business model have struggled. As Tad Friend reported in the New Yorker earlier this year, the upstart studio STX was founded on the idea of making star-driven movies its main products, but has struggled to find and develop viable projects. Its most recent movie was the brutish, video game–inspired action film Hardcore Henry, which was more about its first-person gimmick than its cast.
It's clear Costner knows this is a major problem for him. In 2011, after a long break from making movies, he told the Telegraph, "I haven’t worked for a really long time because I tend to make movies that aren’t sequels, so I’m not exactly in vogue. I can make a movie for $6 million, but most of the time it's going to be around $30 million or $40 million and Hollywood is very leery of movies that cost between $10 million dollars and $150 million."
Hollywood, in other words, no longer knows how to make the sorts of classic, story- and character-driven star vehicles that turned Kevin Costner into a household name. And that leaves performers like him with fewer options. He can still turn in strong supporting work in a superhero movie like Man of Steel. But for leading roles, he's often stuck with trashy action fare like 3 Days to Kill — and, well, Criminal.
There just isn't much space in Hollywood these days for the sort of movies that made Kevin Costner a star. And what that inevitably means is that there isn't much space for an actor like Kevin Costner.