September 10th, 2004
"Criminal" shows us once again that, even with the best of casts and a screenplay co-written by one of the best filmmakers working today (using an ironic pseudonym), it is near impossible to make a great movie about con artists, because of the very nature of the genre itself.
One knows going in that, until the very end, nothing will ever turn out the way you've been set up to believe, so the onus is on making the journey to the end the best it can be. But if the characters are too narrowly drawn, and act the same way we've seen many others in similar situations respond, the trip to the final payoff starts to drag, so when that dénouement finally comes, in a scant 87 minute running time, one is likely to ask themselves "That's it?"
The Argentine drama "Nueve Reinas" followed the tribulations of two small time con artists who team together with an older associate of one of the men to sell a forged set of rare stamps, the Nine Queens, to a businessman about to be deported. The businessman is not allowed to take any of his money out of Argentina, but he could take personal effects, such as a stamp collection. "Criminal" follows much of the same plotline as "Nueve Reinas," transporting the action from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, and the forged treasure from stamps to a rare Monroe Silver Certificate (an 1878 precursor to today's one hundred dollar bill).
John C. Reilly gets his first opportunity to play the lead in a film, and does a marvelous job as Richard Gaddis, a small time conman who is in need of a new partner. While playing cards in a small time casino, Richard spots Rodrigo (Diego Luna) getting busted trying to pull a swindle on a cocktail waitress. Posing as a cop, Richard fools the casino security guards and gets Rodrigo out of the place before the real cops arrive. After pulling off a few small scams, Richard gets a call from his estranged sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a concierge at a four star hotel, asking him to meet her at her work. When he and Rodrigo arrive, Richard discovers an older acquaintance of his collapsed in the lobby while trying to get upstairs to see a VIP guest, and called out Richard's name as he was falling. The older man explains to Richard why he at the hotel, and asks Richard for his help, thus setting off the chain of events that puts these two grifters into the biggest sting of their careers.
One of the things that is most bothersome about a remake like "Criminal" is that they hew so close to the original film that one wonders why spend all that time and energy creating a new work? Granted, "Nueve Reinas" might not have been the most widely seen film, but an American remake should try to bring more than new actors, a new location and some updated dialogue to the material, not unlike what Cameron Crowe did with "Vanilla Sky" a few years ago. Embrace the source material and let it be your guide, but mold it into your own distinct and unique work. First time director Gregory Jacobs worked as Steven Soderbergh's assistant director on nine films before moving into the director's chair here, and shows here he learned much from his boss, who produced the film under his Section 8 production banner. Jacobs proves himself a skillful craftsman, showing a steady hand with his actors and a good eye for pacing, not resorting to unnecessary camera shenanigans to make his film seem so fashionable.
"Crimimal" is a timeless work, which is also its modest downfall. The conclusion is too slight for the setup, and requires a few too many uncomfortable coincidences to make it all work. Compared to previous caper films, from "The Sting" to "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Criminal" is a notch below in terms of inventiveness and satisfaction. But with a solid cast and a smooth fluidity, it is a film that most will likely find rather enjoyable.
My rating: B