Tricks Up Its Sleeve

Plot twists in the con-man film 'Criminal' will keep you guessing until the end.

MovieReviews

September 10, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Rodrigo is a nascent small-time con artist with big problems. Bad enough that he's not very good at his chosen profession (his cons are pretty easy to see through, and he tries the same ones repeatedly). But he's also got a dad who's heavily indebted to some impatient loan sharks, and thus needs money fast.

Imagine Rodrigo's (Diego Luna) good fortune when a more accomplished, but still decidedly small-time, con artist named Richard (John C. Reilly) decides - out of the blue, mind you! - to take him under his wing, teach him a few things, maybe pass on some tricks of the trade. All Rodrigo has to do is keep his mouth shut, his eyes open and his ambitions in check; let his newfound mentor call all the shots, and soon there'll be enough money to get dad off the hook and set himself on a profitable career preying on other people's gullibility.

Criminal, a remake of the 2000 Argentine film Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), is all about sizing people up, about staking your livelihood - not to mention your life - on your ability to gauge people. If you're good at it, you get to live a life in the shadows, trusting no one and living exclusively for that moment when you can prove the other guy is a bigger fool than you are. If you're not good at it ... hey, there's an opening for a shoeshiner on that street corner over there.

Richard, it turns out, is desperate for a new partner, and he sees something in Rodrigo that he can work with (whether he sees the younger man as patsy or protege remains an open question). Rodrigo never quite lets his guard down, but his situation is desperate.

Things get complicated when Richard gets wind of a big-time con involving a rich developer and an ultra-rare piece of American currency. When the guy who planned the initial scam gets hurt, Richard's called in to finish the deal; when Richard realizes he can't do it alone, he reluctantly allows Rodrigo a piece of the action.

Or at least that's what the filmmakers want you to think. The reality is considerably more complicated, leading to an unexpected plot twist that should catch most viewers delightfully unawares.

Luna, whose young career has run the gamut from Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights to Y Tu Mama Tambien, acts properly conflicted as Rodrigo, never letting audiences get a real fix on him; is he as green as he makes out, or does he know more than he lets on?

Also keeping things interesting is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Richard's sister, a successful businesswoman who has no time for her brother's scofflaw tendencies. Few actresses play bemused better than Gyllenhaal.

But Criminal is really a showpiece for Reilly, a career supporting player making the most of a rare leading role. His Richard is a maddening mix of bluster and bravado; he's an egomaniacal blowhard who thinks he's the smartest dog in the pack, but spends most of his time getting short-sheeted by the lowlifes he's constantly looking down on.

Reilly doesn't make Richard at all sympathetic - hard to believe this is the same actor who sang "Mr. Cellophane" in Chicago - but he does make him engaging. His bluster is real, his charisma loathsome (but effective), his magnetism undeniable. You want both the best and worst for this guy from the moment you meet him, and it's a testimony to Reilly's ability to play both sides against the middle that, no matter how events play out, the audience feels satisfied that justice has been done.

Writer-director Gregory Jacobs, who adapted the screenplay with the help of Steven Soderbergh (under the pen name Sam Lowry) doesn't exhibit much in the way of style; there are times when the movie just plods along, and other times when events move from A to C while forgetting altogether about B.

Caper films demand a certain deftness of touch that keeps audiences on their toes, nervously waiting for the next puzzle piece to fall into place; Criminal too often displays craftsmanship when a certain adroitness is called for.

Still, the performances of Luna and, especially, Reilly, make the film more enthralling than it perhaps deserves to be. Fortunately for audiences, there's no crime in that.

Criminal

Starring John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Directed and co-written by Gregory Jacobs

Rated R (Language)

Released by Warner Independent Pictures

Time 87 minutes

SUN SCORE * * *

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