Criminal is the flashy Hollywood remake of a taut, unassuming little Argentine film called Nine Queens. Released in the U.S. in 2002, Nine Queens received fair reviews for its sturdy plotting and prescient political acuity.Essentially a con movie that hinged on the inflated speculative value of a set of rare stamps, the movie benefited from Argentina’s real-life financial ruin that came at the end of 2001, when the government defaulted on a number of major IMF-backed debts and the national economy collapsed.The political subtext helped anchor an otherwise familiar story of small time scam artists who meet and form a tenuous partnership to land a big score.
Needless to say, the American version has jettisoned the rather Argentine-specific subtext.Criminal moves the action to Los Angeles, where professional swindler Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly, Chicago, Magnolia) finds Rodrigo (Y T� Mama Tambien’s Diego Luna) pulling sloppy cons in a low-rent casino and intervenes on his behalf when he’s almost caught.
Offering to give Rodrigo some pointers to finesse his game, Gaddis leads him out of the barrio casinos and across town to Beverly Hills.The central tension between the two characters bubbles up in the form of Gaddis’ Alpha-male wondering if his baby-faced partner can manage to maintain control of his mark at all times, even if it means orchestrating a loud public scene.Eager to prove he can keep his wits about him, Rodrigo bets Gaddis he can slickly convince a woman to hand over her purse in under two minutes.Each is impressed with the other’s skill and wary of it in equal measure, but they soon find their rhythm preying on wealthy old people and rich soccer moms in BMWs.
Things work swimmingly for the duo until Gaddis’ frazzled younger sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary, Donnie Darko), a concierge at a swanky downtown hotel, clues them into a potentially lucrative score she caught wind of in the lobby.Billionaire tycoon William Hannigan (Peter Mullan, The Claim) is leaving Los Angeles that day, and just happens to collect rare treasury notes that one of Gaddis’ seedy contacts specializes in forging.
Itself something of a counterfeit, Criminal loses coherence at each new plot twist, eventually becoming silly and contrived even for viewers not already familiar with the first film.Directed by Gregory Jacobs (from a script by Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh, under his Sam Lowry pseudonym), the film is bogged down by weak plotting and the awkward miscasting of Reilly.A fine actor who’s made a career out of playing luckless shlubs, Reilly is uniquely ill-suited to play a razor-sharp grifter; his aw-shucks charm slows down the rapid-fire dialogue and plays against the script’s tone.The role of Gaddis requires an oily charm, and one wonders why Soderbergh didn’t call on his old friend George Clooney to fill those shoes.
Reilly’s banter with Luna, lacking the urgency of the dizzying crook-speak often associated with David Mamet (House of Games, Heist), smacks of an Everyman desperation that ultimately tips the screenplay’s hand a bit. Jacobs seeks to play up the class and racial distinctions that divide East L.A. from Beverly Hills – Rodrigo’s conscience is at odds with Gaddis’ calculated coldness – and it works until the bulk of the action moves to the hotel. Once the plot focuses in on its Treasury-note Macguffin, the whole enterprise falls apart like a house of cards.