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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Criminal
Criminal
Warner Bros. // R // August 10, 2004
Review by Kim Morgan | posted September 17, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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How can a 90-minute film move so slowly? This is a question you'll be asking while watching Criminal, a film that's actually 87-minutes long and so tepid that we're left with a "who cares?" feeling we shouldn't have after experiencing a confidence game.

A re-make of the good film Nine Queens, by Argentinean filmmaker Fabian Bielinsky (though not a great film, which is why this second go-round might have been interesting), Criminal nearly blue-prints it's original, albeit in English and set in Los Angeles. But somewhere between the layered cons and expected twists, the soul of the original is lost. Nine Queens benefited from its lead, the slick, infinitely watchable Ricardo Darin; its setting, Buenos Aires, which was showcased in all its modernity; and breakneck pacing, necessary for a fun movie about conmen. Though not remarkably significant, Nine Queens is charming and guess-worthy, even when you feel the machinations under its sparkling surface.

Directed by first-timer Gregory Jacobs and written by Jacobs and (under a pseudonym) Steven Soderbergh, Criminal has the sheen and the jazz, but none of the juice. With character actor extraordinaire John C. Reilly in Darin's stead (here, his name is Richard), the film loses much of original's cool sexiness (just one reason the original was so appealing). And this "sexiness" is lost not because of Reilly's looks, it's an attitude and sensation that's not conveyed through either script or character. Echoing former co-star Philip Baker Hall (who was, incidentally, very sensual in his sad, baggy-eyed con-artist manner) in Hard Eight, Reilly plays a mentor to Diego Luna's pupil, Rodrigo—a cholo he meets while observing the youth pull the old money-change scam. As in the first film, Rodrigo is too greedy and busted on the second attempt with Richard, pretending to be a police officer hauling him to jail. Instead, the two band together and come up with a scam involving a billionaire mogul modeled after Rupert Murdoch (Peter Mullan) and a forged bill (Nine Queens involves rare stamps). Along the way, the two men con old ladies, bond, trust or mistrust one another, and deal with familial pressures. For Richard, family means his burned-out, hardened sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

If you've never seen the original film, you may be surprised by the twists and turns of Criminal. But twists and turns for what purpose? To SEE the magic tricks unfold in front of you? To ape a film that already aped—and did it better—David (House of Games)Mamet ? Criminal suffers from its obvious trickery and oddly, undesirable casting. Luna, a likable, somewhat mysterious presence is sweet, a little too sweet, and Gyllenhaal, though able, is too steely. Worse off is Reilly, who (and I HATE saying this because I REVERE the actor) makes too many unfortunate acting turns for us to believe his character is a con-artist. There's nothing smooth about him, a fact that could have made for an intriguing character, had the picture been partially about his lack of knack, like his protégée role in Hard Eight, it could have moved towards a touching study of mis-placed character. I blame the director for not guiding Reilly properly, because really, the guy can do just about anything.

Criminal wants us to buy its sexy game. But we don't. Movies are terrific vehicles for criminal tales, especially ones about con-men; they fit perfectly with cinema's ability to trick. But when a film about tricks can't work one over on us, then it sags and feels like its thieves—petty.

Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun
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