Criminal

on September 10, 2004 by Sheri Linden
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The accent is on acting in this crisply paced, keep-'em-guessing caper--which is fitting, given its subject is con artists whose chief talent is role-playing. A remake of Fabian Bielinsky's 2000 Argentine film "Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)," "Criminal" marks the directorial debut of Gregory Jacobs, longtime AD for Steven Soderbergh (who serves as a producer). Anemic English-language title aside, it's an entertaining ride through a swindler's-eye view of Los Angeles, terrifically cast with character actors who bring a gritty B-movie panache to the proceedings. The chemistry between leads John C. Reilly ("Chicago") and Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), by turns abrasive and chummy, propels a noirish tale unfolding in bright SoCal sunshine.

Richard (Reilly)--the kind of grifter who wears a business suit, carries a briefcase and drives a Mercedes--takes scruffy Mexican-American Rodrigo (Luna) under his wing after observing his failed attempt at quick-change maneuvers in an L.A. casino. The young man, who is desperate to raise cash to pay off his father's gambling debts, agrees to help Richard with small con jobs in the tony sections of western Los Angeles, his innocent looks proving valuable. But the nickel-and-dime stuff soon gives way to a potential six-figure payday. Richard and Rodrigo end up spending much of the next 24 hours at downtown's opulent Biltmore Hotel, executing a scheme masterminded by the ailing Ochoa (Zitto Kazann), Richard's former partner. It involves the sale of a forged copy of a rare silver certificate to an obscenely wealthy businessman (Peter Mullan, in moneyed bulldog mode). Richard's sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, of the insinuating slouch), happens to be concierge at the hotel, and despises Richard for trying to cheat her and their younger brother (Jonathan Tucker) out of a sizable inheritance.

Before the day is done, a number of characters have elbowed in on the deal. A low-key jazz score underlines the action's nerve-wracking momentum as viewers brace themselves for the final double-cross. But those confident they've figured out who's who will find a twist in the final moments that delivers a certain emotional satisfaction while clouding previous assumptions about good guys and bad guys. Glances at family dynamics and class divisions benefit the genre mix, and the cast animates the lean script with a simmering brew of charm, smarm, ferocious greed and street smarts. Starring John C Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan, Zitto Kazann and Jonathan Tucker. Directed by Gregory Jacobs. Written by Gregory Jacobs and Sam Lowry. Produced by Gregory Jacobs, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. A Warner Independent Pictures release. Crime drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 86 min

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