A few years ago, “Nine Queens,” an unusually clever Argentinian con film, was released in the United States. Heralded by critics but unable to produce a ripple on the mainstream, the film sank. Enter the remake. Thankfully, “Criminal” — produced and rewritten in English by Steven Soderbergh and directed by first-timer Gregory Jacobs — translates the original nicely, replicating its breezy humor with one hand while expertly stacking the deck for the final mouth-dropping climax with the other.
Regarding the script changes from “Nine Queens,” John C. Reilly’s character says it best: “We’ve gotta Anglo you up a little.” Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly) is a con man living in Los Angeles who is short a partner in crime. Coming upon the young Rodrigo (Diego Luna) pulling a simple con in a casino, Gaddis takes him under his wing. After several impromptu training session-style money swipes, Rodrigo is ready for the big time, which comes in the form of a phone call from Gaddis’ sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). A concierge at the prestigious Biltmore hotel, Valerie tells Richard that an ex-partner of his (Zitto Kazann) has turned up in the hotel’s bathroom and is calling for him. This forger turns out to have a scheme for selling to a rich collector a fake rare silver certificate that would likely net a profit of over half a million dollars. Of course, things don’t turn out as expected, leading up to the “Usual Suspects”-style, rug-pulled-out-from-under-you ending.
Awash in ’70s porn music and ambient sound, “Criminal” feels delightfully cheap, as if mirroring its main characters. This low-budget feel transfers the film’s focus to the veteran actors, giving them a chance to show off. Gaddis is a real schmuck, a germaphobe who looks down on everyone else as dirty and expendable. Charismatic and real, Reilly holds our attention in the role but is too likable to pull it off. He only wears the tics and racism of his character rather than taking them to heart. Instead, of the two buddies, it is Luna’s Rodrigo who really scores. Innocent and likable, he quietly steals the film’s emotional center. Valerie, on the other hand, is its conscience, and Gyllenhaal puts her sad atypical good looks to use. Drawing on the sexually tinged depression that she perfected in “Secretary,” she easily does such a fine job that she proves herself deserving of a more challenging role.
Although “Criminal” is a worthy remake, by substituting the United States for Argentina some of the social complexity surrounding the main storyline is lost. In “Nine Queens” the disjunction between the grittiness of Buenos Aires and the sterile, contrived ambience of the international hotel points to a more sophisticated kind of con. The hotel is the made-up face of a society that is struggling to appear First World. The money-starved Valeria (Valerie) looks high class in her elegant hotel-supplied outfit, but she cannot really change her second-class status and at one point becomes little more than a prostitute for a hotel guest. While Gyllenhaal’s Valerie goes through the same scene, the sanitized Los Angeles of “Criminal” evades most of this interesting tension between classes. It’s a shame that many of the social issues fleshed out in “Nine Queens” were lost in the setting change.
But without knowing the plot in advance, the small flaws fade in favor of the overwhelming strength of the setup and ending. So, if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the original, this remake is a must-see.
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