Criminal (United States, 2004)
Criminal is an English-language remake of the little-known (at least in these parts) Nine Queens, a 2000 film from Fabian Bielinsky. First-time director Gregory Jacobs and his co-writer, "Sam Lowry" (actually a pseudonym for Steven Soderbergh), have streamlined the movie for American audiences, quickening the pace and eliminating a few of the complexities. At the same time, they have left some scenes virtually unchanged. The result isn't as compelling as Nine Queens, but it's a respectable caper movie in the tradition of The Sting and David Mamet's Heist.
John C. Reilly, who played Philip Baker Hall's pupil in Hard 8, has evolved to become the teacher here. He's Richard Giddis, a con man who has his eye on a big score. With his new, naïve partner, Rodrigo (Diego Luna), in tow, he intends to bilk billionaire businessman William Hannigan (Peter Mullan at his Rupert Murdoch best) out of $750,000. In his possession is an expert forgery of a rare silver certificate, and, with the help of Diego and a few hotel employees, he believes he can pull off the scam of a lifetime. Unfortunately, the hotel's concierge is Richard's sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and she would like nothing better than to see her good-for-nothing brother fall on his face.
The film's strength lies in the story, and credit for that goes to Bielinsky, Jacobs, and Soderbergh. Nine Queens is a near-masterpiece and the English language adaptation avoids cheapening it. Jacobs clearly appreciates the original. He's not trying to re-invent it to match his own vision. The film moves quickly and crisply, never losing the audience. Some of the twists are easily guessed, but others are not, and there are enough of them that even the most jaded viewer is guaranteed at least a surprise or two. I like well-made movies about con artists, and Criminal, while not at the top of the genre, ranks as a solid effort.
John C. Reilly, although not a typical leading man, is an excellent choice for Richard. His sadsack features make him seem a little down-on-his-luck, which is the perfect disguise for a man who's as slick as they come. Diego Luna, half of the sex-crazed team in Y Tu Mama Tambien, exudes an air of vulnerability. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is sexy and assertive (or maybe she's sexy because she's assertive). But the most enjoyable performance may come from Peter Mullan, who appears to be having a lot of fun playing a billionaire, even if his accent wavers a bit between Scots and Irish.
This is the first time Jacobs has helmed his own film, but he has been a producer and/or assistant director for Soderbergh for more than a decade. Like George Clooney, whose Confessions of a Dangerous Mind showed more than a hint of Soderbergh's influence, Criminal bears a few of the celebrated director's trademarks. Jacobs has learned his lessons well, and, in putting them together on celluloid, he has created an entertaining flick that's a credit to all those involved.
Criminal (United States, 2004)
Cast: John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Mullan, Zitto Kazann
Screenplay: Gregory Jacobs & Sam Lowry (Steven Soderbergh), based on Nine Queens by Fabian Bielinsky
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Music: Alex Wurman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent