The Argentine film “Nine Queens” (“Nueve Reinas”) played in the United States in 2002 and grossed $1.2 million, respectable for a foreign-language art-house film. I wrote in my review that the film was so wonderfully entertaining that “if (it) were in English, it would play on 3,000 screens and make $150 million.” Surely its only obstacle was American moviegoers’ general hesitance to see subtitled movies.
The people at Warner Bros. thought so, too, and the film has been remade as “Criminal,” directed by Steven Soderbergh’s second-unit director Gregory Jacobs and written by Jacobs and Soderbergh. Warner Independent has released it, and it’s playing on fewer than 100 screens, and will probably gross no more than $3 million, consigned to the fate of “artsy” movies that mass audiences don’t like.
Which is silly, because it’s exactly the kind of movie mass audiences DO like: smart, funny, fast-paced and frivolous. I’m telling you, if you put it on 3,000 screens and backed it up with the appropriate marketing, you’d have a $150 million hit. Why can’t I run a movie studio?!
Anyway, this story of cons, double-crosses and swindles is set in Los Angeles, City of Lies. We first meet Rodrigo (Diego Luna), a soulful, fresh-faced Mexican lad from the barrio who is pulling small cons in a casino — not very well, as he is caught right away and is about to be rousted by security. He’s rescued, though, by Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly), a smoother, more experienced con man who needs a new partner and who recognizes the qualities Rodrigo has that he doesn’t: Rodrigo is young and looks innocent. People will trust a face like his. The only way Richard can get people to trust him is by wearing nice suits and being quick on his feet.
Rodrigo needs $75,000 to help his father pay off gambling debts, though as with most explanations in this film, that sounds like a lie. He and Richard stumble upon a scheme to sell counterfeits of valuable old treasury notes to a Scottish billionaire (Peter Mullan) who’s in town for only a few days and who is known to be a collector of such artifacts.
The billionaire is staying at the Biltmore Hotel, where Richard’s estranged sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) works. The two are not on speaking terms because, unsurprisingly, Richard has tried to con her out of her inheritance following their mother’s death. Litigation between the siblings is ongoing. Richard is not, to put it gently, a very nice person. He’s different from most heist-movie characters in that we kind of WANT him to get caught, just because he deserves it so much.
Oh, but he’s smooth. Reilly, a reliable actor in all cases, is at the top of his game here. His character uses almost the exact same delivery when he’s conning as when he’s having honest conversation, making it impossible to tell which is which, and Reilly imbues the guy with a calm confidence that belies the sweaty desperation of which it is born. Richard does most of the swearing in the film, and it always sounds like he’s compensating for his average looks and too-whiny voice by dropping F-bombs to sound tough. For whatever reason, Richard views the world as owing him a living, and he’s glad to separate people from their money, no matter who they are.
Diego Luna’s Rodrigo, plagued with a conscience, seems reluctant to engage in Richard’s most heartless schemes (scamming old grandmothers, for example), but is torn between that and his father’s needs. He makes lovey-dovey eyes at Valerie, Richard’s sister, reminding us that he’s really still just a kid. He’s in over his head.
And the twists? What a delight they are! If you saw “Nine Queens,” you already know this film, as very little has been changed. So I will quote myself again:
“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. ‘(Criminal),’ 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.”
“Criminal” isn’t quite as witty or gritty as “Nine Queens,” and it admittedly holds less appeal if you already know what’s going to happen. But if you didn’t see “Nine Queens” — and odds are you didn’t — see it, now that it’s in English. Prove me right.
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; )