The Criminal Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 2 release of The Criminal. Yet another unexceptional British thriller gets a pretty substandard release from Paramount, with even a couple of unexpected extras failing to save it from mediocrity

The Film

There’s something of a tendency amongst film critics to be rather parochial when a British film, whether it be a comedy, a thriller, or a costume drama, turns out to actually look like a film, rather than an extended television drama, and to have some sort of commercial prospects. The most infamous example of this was Chris Tookey’s gushing review of Martha, meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence, an unexceptional romantic comedy that Tookey elevated to a status it simply didn’t deserve. However, over and over again, unexceptional little films are praised for being competent, in a rather depressing state of events; of course, the odd great, genuinely commercial film like Lock, Stock or Bridget Jones’ Diary is made, but more often than not British films are a morass of underfunded, under-drafted and inexperienced mediocrity; the fact that The Criminal is a competent piece of filmmaking does not mean that it is any better than 99% of the Hollywood, Asian or European films that are made.

The plot is something of a homage to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, concerning a musician called Jasper, or ‘J’ (Mackintosh), and his chance meeting with a beautiful stranger named Sarah (Little). Unfortunately, she winds up dead, J goes on the run, and the police, as led by Bernard Hill, do very little other than swear a lot. Meanwhile, it transpires that a vast conspiracy, known only as ‘The Shackleton Institute’ may well have been behind Sarah’s death, leading to further bloodshed. If you’ve seen any of Hitchcock’s ‘innocent man accused of murder’ films, you can guess the rest; unfortunately, the lightness and charm of those films are mostly missing from this rather queasy confection.

In all fairness, this is not a bad film. The cast are all quite good, with Mackintosh portraying an Everyman figure with his usual skill, and Little is a good femme fatale, although one given short shrift by the plot. Meanwhile, the film is stolen by the double act of Bernard Hill and Holly Aird as the investigating police; their banter is easily the most enjoyable aspect of the film, and, bar the constant swearing, the only parts where Hitchcock comparisons ever seem to be justifiable. Simpson’s script is slightly juvenile in its plotting and characterisation- a common solution to a narrative problem is simply to kill off another character- but it is at least coherent, and his direction is adequate enough, eschewing MTV effects but at least looking vaguely cinematic.

Unfortunately, while this isn’t a bad film, it’s not a very good one either. The pleasure of conspiracy films comes partly from the set-up and suspense, and partly from the revelation of what is actually going on; while the set-up is done adequately enough, the big revelations here are tiresomely predictable, without the originality or spin that you would hope for, leading to a finale where the only response likely to be evoked is confusion. There are also severe flaws with some of the characters, most notably Eddie Izzard, who is utterly miscast as a forensic psychologist, and appears to be treating the script as if it’s a sort of stand-up comedy routine. It almost goes without saying that the action scenes are incoherent, that the swearing is incredibly irritating (the word ‘fuck’ is probably used about as much as in Goodfellas or Scarface), and that some of the supporting performances are inadequate. If this was released with, say, Ben Affleck in the leading role and a $70 million budget, then criticism would be harsher; as it is, the effect of watching such a mediocre piece of filmmaking is simply to shrug, and half-heartedly hope that Simpson’s obvious potential is more fully realised in his next film.

The Picture

For reasons best known to themselves, Paramount have released this with a non-anamorphic transfer, which really does emphasise what a difference anamorphic enhancement makes; the darker scenes feel very murky, it’s often difficult to make out details in the picture, colour definition is pretty poor, and this is, overall, a very weak transfer for a recent film. The only thing that can be said in its favour is that the print is devoid of all damage; however, as praise goes, it’s decidedly faint.

The Sound

A 5.1 mix is provided, which does an adequate job of showcasing the dialogue, and is used sporadically effectively in the action scenes towards the close of the film; however, this is not a big-budget blockbuster, and therefore doesn’t have the soundtrack of one.

The Extras

Surprisingly for such a low-key release, Paramount have provided more extras than for their release of, say, Chinatown. However, what we have is fairly basic stuff. The trailer does a good job of emphasising the film’s action and thriller content, and was probably used to sell the film in America, and the biographies are standard fare. The interviews with the major cast and Simpson, meanwhile, are quite interesting but badly edited and too brief, and the director’s commentary is a fairly poor affair, with Simpson concentrating too heavily on the nuts and bolts aspects of ‘And then, that day, it was dark really early, and so we had to shoot in one take’, rather than the more interesting topics of how to make a low-budget film, the film’s reception etc.


You are unlikely to buy this disc. If you do, you’ll probably find the film vaguely diverting, but hardly of particularly high quality, and you’ll also be rather disappointed by the picture quality. It’s the sort of film that will be shown on BBC2 one Sunday night in a couple of years, and I would be surprised if anyone felt that they couldn’t wait until then.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Oct 21, 2001

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