Eric D. Snider

Nine Queens (Spanish)

Most foreign films that make their way to the United States gained the acclaim necessary to achieve distribution by being high-minded, ambitious or artsy. The French equivalent of "Joe Somebody," for example, would never be shown outside its native land.

So it is sometimes refreshing to see a foreign film that has nothing on its mind higher than entertaining and surprising us. "Nine Queens," from Argentine writer/director Fabian Bielinsky, is that sort of movie. It is "The Sting" multiplied by David Mamet, with an addition of a twisty plot and a satisfying ending that makes perfect sense -- in retrospect. Perhaps the strongest urge you will have at the end is to watch it again, to verify that yes, it all makes sense.

The less you know about the plot, the more you will enjoy the film. I will give you the basics. Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a reluctant con man, having taken up the game only because his father, at whose knee he learned the tricks, needs $70,000 in a hurry. Juan is taken under the wing of Marcos (Ricardo Darin), a cynical veteran trickster who has no qualms about robbing old ladies or newspaper vendors. He observes that Juan's nice-guy face will work to his advantage, if only he can get over his pesky conscience.

They stumble across a scheme involving a sheet of rare stamps, known as the Nine Queens. They can sell the stamps -- or, even better, counterfeit ones -- for a ton of money to a wealthy businessman named Vidal (Ignasi Abadal). But then there are complications. Hoo boy, are there ever complications.

Some caper films insist on one twist after another, often stretching the limits of probability; we're asked to believe that some pretty elaborate schemes were set up and some major coincidences relied upon. "Nine Queens," though, is content to pull the rug out from under us only a few times, and when it's over, there is no ambiguity. We know exactly who everyone is, and what everyone was up to all along -- and it makes perfect sense. In fact, once we see the conclusion, we realize it's the only outcome that COULD make sense, given what we already know.

I am hesitant even to discuss the acting, because I don't want to give anything away by indicating this person is good at this emotion, or that one is good at this other one. I'll just say that the performances are good all around, and that the actors are as adept at pretending as the characters are.

The film is witty, exciting and entertaining. Juan and Marcos have a sharp banter between them, with Juan appalled at Marcos' inhumanity and Marcos amused by Juan's naivete. If this were in English, it would play on 3,000 screens and make $150 million. As it is, it will have to settle for being one of the greatest foreign films of the year.

Grade: A

Rated R, frequent harsh profanity

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