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Criminal   B+

Warner Independent Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Gregory Jacobs
Writers: Gregory Jacobs, Sam Lowry
Cast: John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan, Jonathan Tucker, Zitto Kazann.

Review by Rob Vaux

If you're going to steal, steal from the best. The adage could be written in the con artists' hall of fame, and filmmakers Gregory Jacobs, George Clooney, and Steven Soderbergh have taken it to heart. Their new movie Criminal is based on a fine caper from Argentina called Nine Queens -- part of that less-than-admirable habit of Americanizing foreign fare for no other reason than to eliminate the subtitles. Yet not only do they capture the clever energy of the original work, they actually improve upon it in many ways. Criminal is sleeker, more efficient, and better-paced than Nine Queens. It drops a few unnecessary complications, rendering the drama more plausible in the process. And while Nine Queens boasted a fine ensemble (topped by Ricardo Darin's deliciously amoral swindler), Criminal matches it with three very compelling leads.

The central figure is Richard Gaddis, played by the versatile John C. Reilly. Like Darin's earlier figure, he's a seasoned con artist with the ethics of a moray eel. The whole world's a mark to him, and other people are nothing more than unwitting ATM machines. Not even his partners in crime are safe from his predations; he's left a string of betrayals behind him and doesn't look to change with his latest protégé, the baby-faced Rodrigo (Diego Luna). Not that he's ready to trade up just yet. Thought more softhearted than his elder, Rodrigo has a strong instinct for the short con and a friendly look that goes miles in assuaging his victims. Indeed, both actors parlay their natural appeal into a fiendish mask for their characters: a kind, warm smile that says, "It'll be okay if you just give me the money."

But neither of them have anything on Gaddis' sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a type-A hotel concierge locked in a dysfunctional legal struggle with her brother. She reenters his life when an old associate of his (Zitto Kazann) passes out in her lobby. The casting of the unspeakably adorable Gyllenhaal -- her button nose crinkling over a mouth tailor-made for reading bedtime stories to children -- is inspired. She transforms her Betty Crocker facade into an unapproachable ice queen, hostility leaking through teeth clenched in a perennially phony smile. In her own way, she's as nasty as her brother; she's just found a more honest way of expressing it. And it's clear that she wants nothing whatsoever to do with either him or his puppy-eyed partner.

Fate, however, has other things in mind. Gaddis' associate is a forger, carrying a falsified 19th-century government bond worth a great deal of money. An interested buyer is staying at the hotel, but he's leaving within the day, and with no one else to turn to, the forger need Gaddis to close the deal. Director Jacobs knows precisely how to pace the ensuing game of Mamet-esque twists and double-crosses, delivering a muscular 87 minutes that waste no time on superfluous details. While he cuts some of Nine Queens' dead weight, he retains every inch of its intelligence and wit. Shorter, in this case, does not mean dumbed down, and Criminal sharply avoids the "broadest possible audience" pitfall of most Hollywood remakes. It also keeps a firm grasp on the characters, and ensures that their quirks and personalities aren't lost amid the increasingly complicated plot. The tension between the two Gaddises -- and the fact that their mutual avarice forces them to work together -- forms a strong counterpoint to the expected hustler's tricks, while Luna makes a terrific wild card to keep the audience on their toes.

Criminal also brings a subtle visual look to its Los Angeles setting. DP Chris Menges contrasts the sun-dappled streets with the cool interior of the hotel where the bulk of the action takes place. The press kit makes some noise about the difference between east and west LA -- the one represented by Rodrigo's street-savvy Latino, the other by Gaddis' bland Anglo looks and sterile luxury car -- which Jacobs delivers with enough style to give the film a unique identity separate from its Argentine predecessor. Hollywood seems enamored of con movies in recent years, with the likes of Confidence, Matchstick Men, and the ubiquitous Mamet productions marching across the screen. Criminal is a step up from most of them: a reminder of the genre's irresistible lure and what pleasures can be derived when it cares enough to do things right.

Review published 09.09.2004.

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