John C. Reilly as Richard Gaddis
Diego Luna as Rodrigo
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Valerie
Peter Mullen as William Hannigan
Zitto Kazann as Ochoa
Jonathan Tucker as Michael
Ellen Geer as Grandma
Brent Sexton as Ron
Juan Carlos Cantu as Rodrigo’s Dad
Two con men (Reilly and Luna) work together over the course of the day to try to make some money with their quick con games. When one of them learns of a bigger scam to sell a forgery of a rare silver certificate, two men that don’t trust each other need to try to work together to pull off an elaborate hoax.
In 2002, Fabien Belinski’s Nueve Reinas, translated as “9 Queens”, was one of the first films from Argentina to receive overwhelming praise from critics here in the States due to its clever plot and great performances from a couple unknown Argentine actors. It was different from the recent spat of crime films in that it didn’t have the violence that had become so typical in a post Quentin Tarantino world, instead having a more light-hearted feel of classic films from the 40’s and 50’s. Unwilling to rest until they’ve remade every heist and crime flick ever made, producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney picked up the rights to do an English language version of Nine Queens, bringing on an all-star cast and putting their co-producer Gregory Jacobs behind the camera.
What made the original movie so good were the back-and-forth cons between the two men leading to one unexpected twist after another. Anyone that appreciated Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men will enjoy the double-crossing cons that make up the majority of that movie, and much of that is still here, because essentially, this is the exact same movie. Criminal is almost a scene-for-scene English language remake set in a different location with different actors speaking in a different language. And that’s the biggest problem with the movie, because none of the ideas seem nearly as clever when presented a second time around, and if you’ve seen the original, it’s impossible to not try to compare the two.
At least the rewritten dialogue is not a word-for-word translation and the script includes many clever additions and quips that help make the story more entertaining. On top of that, Soderbergh and Clooney have pulled together an incredible ensemble cast of popular indie actors that have brought a lot to their past movies. Some of these actors work better in the roles than others, although their performances mainly recreate the mood and tone of scenes from the original movie. Sadly, John C. Reilly, while a great actor, was miscast as the slimy conman Richard. Reilly has always been so good at playing nice guy roles, like in Chicago, but it’s very hard to accept him playing this character, since he never really attains the despicable nature of the original actor. Because of that, a lot of the movie is harder to buy, since you never feel as strongly about Richard getting any comeuppance for his actions.
On the other hand, Diego Luna has no problem pulling off the role of the younger and more naïve Rodrigo. It’s a bit odd that they went with a Mexican actor for the role and kept quite a bit of his dialogue in Spanish. Maybe they realized that some of the scenes involving his character worked better if they maintained the original character’s ethnicity, since much of Rodrigo’s con games involve gaining the trust of others, something that makes sense considering the large Hispanic community in L.A. That said, the chemistry between the two actors seems a lot more forced and not nearly as natural as the original duo, and the pacing tends to be dragged down by their deliberate delivery.
On the other hand, Maggie Gyllenhaal does a great job playing Richard’s put-upon sister, who has been at the receiving end of a truly despicable swindle, but allows herself to be dragged into the duo’s plans, and Scottish actor Peter Mullen is perfect as the slimy entrepreneur that is the target of the scam. Gyllenhaal brings a lot of depth and personality to what was a pretty bland character, particularly in the scenes with Reilly and their younger brother, played by The Deep End‘s Jonathan Tucker. These scenes are much stronger, because they’re a lot more dramatic than those of the original movie.
Los Angeles provides a very different environment for this story than Buenos Aires, but it’s not nearly as interesting a setting because it’s been seen in hundreds of movies. Buenos Aires may have been more interesting in that sense, because you would think that Americans in big cities would naturally be more suspicious of strangers, but most of the duo’s cons would probably work in any fast-moving city where people are busy and not really paying attention to the details.
The Bottom Line:
The best thing about Criminal is that it takes an already great story and makes it more accessible and available to a wider audience that may have missed it the first time. With that in mind, this might be a suitable replacement for those who haven’t seen the original, even if it’s more about the actors than the characters. Sadly, few people will even realize that Criminal is a remake, and it’s a shame, because as is often the case, Criminal doesn’t quite live up to the original movie’s potential.