Criminal (2004)Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/09/05 17:25:23
If you’ve had the fortune to see the dazzling South American con man flick “Nine Queens,” then you’ll have little use for “Criminal,” an indie remake that brings with it an excellent cast, yet loses something in the translation. The performances are solid enough, and the core story still so very, very cool enough, that this new version is still worth the time. Those who have never seen the original will surely enjoy themselves; those familiar with the original, meanwhile, will smile at the familiar points, yet lament the absence of the little touches.Both films revolve around two con men, one a veteran, the other a rookie. For “Criminal,” John C. Reilly plays the pro, an old hat named Richard who’s in need of a new partner. He recruits newbie Rodrigo (Diego Luna), whom he spies trying to pull a quick change con at a local casino. Richard offers a chance to learn the ropes of the con game - think Mamet’s “House of Games” as an educational tool.
The plot revs up once the two land the chance for a big time score, albeit one that must be pulled immediately. Which is exactly the kind of con style the film takes delight in playing up: Richard and Rodrigo are both experts at thinking on their feet, understanding that the best cons require a great deal of improvisation for them to work. And so, with little time and less planning, the duo begins to put together the con of cons, centered on a counterfeit bill and an eager buyer.
All the great moments from “Nine Queens” return here - the nuances of the characters’ plans, the split-second changes of direction that slams the viewer, the pile of accidents and coincidences that play for and against our duo. Fans of the original film will know what to expect (the filmmakers do little to change the story for those familiar with it), and, like I said, the familiarity of the story will get some smiles.
But I still recommend “Queens” over “Criminal” for the simple fact that in putting together the remake, director/co-writer Gregory Jacobs dropped about a half hour’s worth of story. What gets lost in the translation are not major plot points, but subtle indications of character. Fabián Bielinsky, the guy behind “Queens,” took the time to punctuate the twists and turns with nice character touches, bits of backstory that lend a greater depth to the action. Jacobs, apparently interested more in the twists than with those making them, drops most of this, leaving Richard and Rodrigo to be shallower figures. They’re less people and more chess pieces.
That’s what makes the difference between a great con movie and merely a good one. “Criminal” is merely a good movie. It’s worth seeing, to be sure, and I recommend it even to those who love “Queens” so much. The reason? Reilly and Luna, both of whom are actors that get me to beam just knowing they’ll be on camera; these are two of the most watchable performers working in movies today. Reilly gives his character a greasy, slickster appeal that’s almost seductive, while Luna uses his innocent charms to create a seemingly naïve character that wins us over as easily as he wins over his marks. (Supporting players Peter Mullan and Maggie Gyllenhaal add nice touches of their own, too.) Granted, it would have been so much better to see such fine actors tackle the deeper areas of their characters. But as it is, it’s a delight to see them in any action at all.
Jacobs, a longtime collaborator of Steven Soderbergh (who co-wrote under the name “Sam Lowry”), makes his writing and directing debut here. Was it a wise choice to debut with such familiar material? I’m not sure - one risks being endlessly compared to the source. Then again, the material has already been proven. It’s a safe bet, I suppose, a sure thing. Jacobs already knew the story worked, and he didn’t have to gamble as much.The result, then, is a safer, watered-down, but still enjoyable redo. Those unfamiliar with “Nine Queens” will most surely be impressed. If you’re not willing to skip “Criminal” and go straight to the source instead, you’ll find plenty to like here.
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