In 2002, Sony Pictures Classics released Nine Queens, a taut con-job caper movie from Argentina. Though heavily indebted to David Mamet’s House of Games and with a plot flimsier than a house of cards (first-time writer-director Fabián Bielinsky got the opportunity to shoot his film thanks to the Argentine equivalent of Project Greenlight), Queens was nevertheless a stylish puzzler that turned on sly performances, an intriguingly mutable setting (Buenos Aires), and the drawn-out-to-the-bitter-end question of who was conning whom.
If you saw Nine Queens, there’s little reason to catch Criminal, the Hollywood remake. Despite a refreshing change-of-pace performance by John C. Reilly, the cat is well out of the bag: Both films pivot on a preposterously gratifying climactic twist that makes the story a solid one-timer.
If you missed the original, Criminal is a reasonable facsimile. Helmed by Gregory Jacobs, who like Bielinsky is a tyro (albeit also a longtime A.D. to co-screenwriter Steven Soderbergh—who’s credited, as on The Underneath, with the name of Jonathan Pryce’s character from Brazil), Criminal is barely changed from its initial incarnation. Reilly plays Richard Gaddis, a cynical Los Angeles con man who takes pity on an inept colleague he spots in a Gardena casino (Diego Luna). The newly partnerless Gaddis agrees to spend the day with Rodrigo to teach him the trade, and the two are soon happily swindling Beverly Hills shut-ins and coffeehouse waiters. Rodrigo exhibits something like a conscience, but Gaddis cheats even his dry cleaner; to him, everyone’s a potential mark, including his own family. A big-dollar opportunity involving a forged antique silver certificate, a visiting Irish currency collector (Peter Mullan), and Gaddis’s resentful sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal, lithe but one-dimensional) presents itself, and the duo scramble to assemble the components of their scam.
Jacobs is a competent, unflashy director, and given the production’s pedigree (besides co-writing, Soderbergh produced with George Clooney), he rarely comes off as excessively Soderberghian. (This is occasionally a deficit, too.) He and cinematographer Chris Menges compose the film largely in close-ups, and the effect is appropriately unnerving. Regardless, unfavorable comparisons to Nine Queens are inevitable. (If you haven’t seen that film, you may want to stop reading here.) Bielinsky’s duo, Marcos (Ricardo Darín) and Juan (Gastón Pauls), are less gratingly Mutt & Jeff-ish than the mismatched Gaddis and Rodrigo, and while Reilly stretches himself by channeling his inner misanthropic asshole, Luna is simply too puppy doggish to be believed. Moreover, the off-the-beaten path L.A. locales never quite match the schizoid claustrophobia of B.A.
More pointedly, while Gaddis’s exploitative solipsism provides a neat, all-purpose comment on Bush-era American greed, his comeuppance lacks the social specificity of Bielinsky’s film: By a trick of fate, Marcos is screwed out of his haul by Argentina’s shambolic economy—and, implicitly, the high-level grifters who benefited from that country’s bank failures. That Jacobs and Soderbergh fail to come up with a contemporary U.S. analogue suggests that they should read a newspaper every once in a while.