Con artist caper movies are a dime a dozen, but in the modern day cinema they still manage to stay fresh while keeping us guessing. Based on the 2000 Argentine film Nueve reinas, Criminal is this year’s cinematic con job brought to us courtesy of Danny Ocean and his puppeteer. A Soderbergh and Clooney produced con artist flick with John C. Reilly; it has to be good. Right? Sure it is, but it could have been so much better.
Diego Luna stars as Rodrigo the small time, up and coming, little crook who simply intends to swindle casino waitresses out of a few extra bucks here and there. When Rodrigo gets busted for his actions it is nearby con man Richard (John C. Reilly) who comes to his rescue masqueraded as a police officer. Richard takes Rodrigo under his wing, renames him Brian, and rides off into the streets of Los Angeles to find some real “marks”. In the midst of their little Training Day, Richard and “Brian” learn of a huge potential score from Richard’s old partner Ochoa (Zitto Kazann), duping international businessman and rare antique currency collector William Hannigan (Peter Mullan) with an old counterfeit silver certificate just hours before he must leave the country due to U.S. tax concerns. The two then spend the next twenty-four hours risking all that they have, putting everything on the line in order to catch this big score, only to have it slowly slip from their grasp as the hours tick by. All the hurdles of their grand scheme involve Richard crossing paths with his estranged sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), ultimately leading to inevitable twists and turns in their misdeeds. Criminal’s plot twirls about and rolls around more times than fat man in a hula hoop on fire. When the film comes to an end you’ll wonder just who is conning whom?
Gregory Jacobs makes his directorial debut after spending the last eleven years as first assistant director on every Stephen Soderbergh movie since 1993's King of the Hill. You can tell watching Criminal that Jacobs has been taking a few notes. His debut is very well paced, well acted, well shot, and greatly well cut together. Jacobs shows promise as a director. Another film or two under his belt and he could really be something to look out for, but his casting is a problem.
I’ve nothing against Reilly, Gyllenhaal, and Luna; I mean they all did great jobs. It just seems odd seeing Reilly in a lead role like this. I’m not knocking his performance, but in watching the movie it seems like someone else passed on the role and he got thrown into it. Criminal could have had more of an impact in the events leading to its climax with some one who has a little more weight to him. With Reilly, the ending is a slight shocker, but I can only wonder if the shock would have ruptured into an all out “What the f#*k” moment with a different leading man.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, I have no complaints. Luna is pretty good as Rodrigo/“Brian”. For the umpteenth time since Y tu mamá también he plays the gratuitous Hispanic guy with an accent, which will only slowly make him the Mexican equivalent of Antonio Banderas. Somebody needs to break free of that damn typecasting, stat! Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t get an awful lot of screen time in the film, but all of her scenes are winners. She comes across as very motherly towards Richard and Valerie’s little brother Michael, played by Jonathan Tucker even though Gyllenhaal is only five years older than Tucker in real life. The Gyllenhaals are the like new Fondas, they can do no wrong...well for now at least... let’s just hope Maggie doesn’t start doing exercise tapes.
Opening in a limited release up against Resident Evil: Apocalypse doesn’t bode well for business, but to all you indie hounds out there, you might as well go check out Criminal. For those who don’t live in major cities, skip it. Rent it on DVD in another six months. You won’t kill yourself not seeing this, and we’ve still got two and a half more months of crap to go before we get to the holiday/awards season. The summer is over folks. It was fun while it lasted.