I looked at the keep case in vain trying to find David Mamet's name as screenwriter. "Criminal," the 2004 crime frolic from Warner Independent Pictures, comes off like a "House of Games," a "Spanish Prisoner," or a "Heist." But it's not Mamet. It's by writer-director Gregory Jacobs, assisted by his mentor Steven Soderbergh (disguised as "Sam Lowry"), and based on Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky's 2000 movie, "Nueve reinas" ("Nine Queens"). I had never seen the original "Nine Queens," but the remake is a nifty little picture, if fairly derivative of other such capers.
To tell you how "little" the picture is, it took in at the box office almost three times what it cost to make and still didn't gross over $1,000,000. Who could blame audiences for staying away: It only played in limited release around the country, it has a mundane title, and it stars John C. Reilly. Now, understand, John C. Reilly is a terrific actor. But he almost never gets the lead in a movie. He's one of Hollywood's finest featured players, a character actor audiences always recognize but can not always place.
OK, I admit I'm a sucker for these twisty-turny mystery yarns, and while "Criminal" is not at the top of the game, it's got its moments. Enough of them to make the film fairly enjoyable at least the first time around. I guarantee nothing on a second run.
Reilly plays a veteran con artist, Richard Gaddis, who has no feelings for his marks or for anybody else around him for that matter. He thinks anybody who works for a living in a regular job is a sucker. He doesn't even believe in paying for the gas in his own car; he cons other people into paying for him. Reilly brings just the right icy coldness to the role of someone who can't get close to anyone, not even his own family.
At the moment, Gaddis is in the market for a new partner. His old associate has temporarily disappeared, and he desperately needs someone to replace him for a few days. Gaddis happens upon a young novice con man, Rodrigo (Diego Luna, who conveys a splendid sense of boyish naïveté), trying unsuccessfully to hustle a casino waitress out of a few dollars, and he sees potential in him. The young fellow seems to have too much conscience, but Gaddis feels he can use that to his advantage. Gaddis tells the beginner that he has the one thing money can't buy, "You look like a nice guy." And Rodrigo does look like a nice guy, just the sort of nice guy that people trust their money to. Gaddis, on the other hand, must rely on the impression of success and prosperity to gain people's confidence. As he puts it, "People are more likely to give money to someone who looks like they already have money." Therefore, Gaddis wears an expensive suit and drives a new Mercedes. Gaddis takes the youngster under his wing, teaching him the ropes of conning, grifting. It's kind of like Newman and Redford in "The Sting," but without the light, comic touch.
Rodrigo seems genuinely a nice guy because he has reservations about conning certain people out their hard-earned cash, like little old ladies. Gaddis, though, has no such misgivings and tries to persuade the young man that anyone dumb enough to give him their money deserves to be taken.
Anyway, the plot revolves around the affiliation of the two men and around a big con Gaddis is planning for a billionaire Irishman named William Hannigan (Peter Mullan), again with shades of the mark in "The Sting," Irish gangster Doyle Lonnegan. One of Gaddis's old partners, a forger named Ochoa (Zitto Kazann) comes to him with a deal to sell Hannigan a phony, one-of-a-kind gold certificate, supposedly the most valuable piece of paper in the world. And Gaddis needs not only Rodrigo's help with the swindle but the help of his estranged sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the concierge at the ritzy hotel (the Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles) that Hannigan is staying at.
From the start we get the distracting feeling that this is a Steven Soderbergh picture with its multitude of location shots, its ambient street noises, its feeling for realistic particulars, and its sometimes jerky, handheld camera movements. This isn't surprising considering that writer-director Jacobs was a second-unit director and an assistant director to Soderbergh on "Ocean's Eleven," "Ocean's Twelve," "Solaris," "Erin Brockovich," "The Limey," and other films, and that Soderbergh helped cowrite and co-produce the present picture. The movie also has the diverting feel of a Mamet production in its terse, clipped, often staccato dialogue.
But the Soderbergh-Mamet connections are not the only things that divide our attention. The trouble with any of these confidence flicks is that as an audience we're trying every moment to second-guess them, to be able to say we saw it all coming long before the closing credits rolled. "Criminal" sets itself up from the very beginning as a confidence caper, so we are forced to wonder throughout the story just who is being conned and what, if anything, is intended to come unexpectedly. This constant work on the viewer's part takes the viewer's attention from what should be the movie's best feature, the interrelationship between the older and younger con men. But it's a problem the movie creates for itself, something similar to the bed M. Night Shyamalan has made for himself. Rather than just enjoying the movie as it goes along, the viewer is forever trying to predict the ending.
To be honest, I saw most of "Criminal" coming because I was expecting something like it to happen, and, frankly, it spoiled some of the fun. Moreover, I saw afterwards that on reflection a lot of what happened in the story didn't seem too plausible, relying far too heavily on coincidence and split-second timing to make much sense. Still and all, the acting is uniformly excellent and the proposed surprises, anticipated or no, are enough to make "Criminal" an enterprising and intriguing watch. It satisfies in minor ways.
The video is fairly ordinary for a modern DVD transfer. The screen size measures a ratio approximately 1.75:1 across my standard-screen Sony HD television, closely matching its 1.85:1 theatrical-release size; it's enhanced for 16x9 TVs; and it's given a healthy bit rate. While the colors come off brightly enough, they are also rather dark in interior shots, faces often seeming much too orangish for real life. Definition is good, but detail is sometimes on the smudgy side, and grain is intermittently noticeable.
There is not much to be said about the movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. It's OK in the front channels but communicates hardly anything in the surrounds. Not that it needs to; the picture is almost all dialogue. But the front channels don't produce a very wide stereo spread, either, making much of the movie seem like it's in monaural. Nevertheless, the sound is sharply delineated and wonderfully clean, making every word easy to discern.
Warner Bros. were not about to spend too much money on extras for so small a picture. In fact, they spent hardly anything at all. There are twenty-four scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; trailers for two other WB features, "Blessed" and "We Don't Live Here Anymore"; and that's about it. English is the only spoken language available, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
As I've suggested, "Criminal" may be a bit too much like other such con-game movies to be entirely satisfying on second watching, and it might not even satisfy the discerning viewer the first time around. But the interaction of the movie's two leads, Reilly and Luna, is so good you might enjoy it for their performances alone. For me, I may have seen just a few too many of these things to have needed another one.