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(As a special treat, here is my original review for Nine Queens written over two years ago. Note that at the time that this was written, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney had not yet picked up the English rights to the movie, so there's more than a bit of irony in this review.)
Heist films continue to be the primary domain of many independent directors here in the States and abroad. Just look at the careers of David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino and Guy Richie, who have cut their teeth on movies about what should have been a simple caper gone wrong. The far reaches of the independent heist film are never more evident than they are in this award-winning heist film from Argentina, which is set in the world of con men and thieves in Buenos Aires.
Written and directed by Fabien Bielinsky, 9 Queens focuses on two con men who meet under less-than-ideal circumstances and decide to team up for the day. Marco (Ricardo Darin) is the seasoned vet who will go to any lengths for the con, while Juan (Gastin Pauls) is the beginner, seemingly an innocent with more noble reasons for pulling his scams. Essentially, he needs to earn enough money to help is elderly imprisoned father bribe a judge. People tend to like and trust Juan, but even Juan has trouble trusting his new partner, since Marco is so slimy and corrupt, that he even cheated his own siblings out of their inheritance. The two of them think they've struck pay dirt when they get involved in the plans of a forger to sell a counterfeit set of rare German stamps. Unfortunately, the big deal is going down at the hotel where Marco's sister, Valeria (Leticia Bredice), works, and she quickly gets drawn into the web of lies and deceit. Things begin to get complicated, and the plan quickly goes awry as everyone involved seems to want a cut of the take.
9 Queens is one of those caper movies that is so brilliantly done that you wonder why there can't be more movies made so simply, yet so perfectly. The entire movie is reminiscent of the 1990 John Cusack/Angelica Huston film, The Grifters, and of course, the movie owes a lot to the films of David Mamet, even though the humor is much more subtle. And 9 Queens is a far better representation of the genre than both Mamet's latest, Heist, and the overly-hyped Steven Soderbergh remake of Ocean's 11. The difference seems to be that while the Hollywood system clearly intervened in the making of those movies, this movie still has the purity of movies such as Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
The first half-hour of the movie leading up to the introduction of the 'big job' introduces the two con men by showing them pulling scams and trying to one-up each other. Juan quickly proves to Marco that, despite his inexperience, he has some terrific plans and a way of convincing people to give him what he wants. By comparison, Marco is prepared to use whatever means necessary, and it does't matter who he swindles of money, even taking priceless heirlooms from elderly women. The majority of the movie focuses on the interaction between Marco and Juan, and both actors are excellent. Pauls pulls off the trusting yet suspicious Juan perfectly, while Darin is wonderful as the vile Marco, to the point where he still manages to get some empathy from the viewer despite his sleazy actions. The weight of the performance bythese two actors is similar to that of Favreau and Vaughn in Swingers. It would be hard to believe that these two actors have not been friends for years as the chemistry between them is clearly evident.
Throughout the big caper, there are a number of clever twists which leaves the audience thinking that there's no way they will pull it off, but nothing is ever as it seems, as con men and swindlers come out of the woodwork, trying to make a quick buck from the pair. The entire situation and how it will pan out is captivating, never losing the interest of the viewer for a second. It's especially nice that Bielinsky does't feel the need to resort to mindless violence in order to keep that interest either. The only real let-down is the very ending, which seems like it was tacked on to meet the demands of test markets, as if Bielinsky had shot a number of endings and then chosen this particular one. (I guess they do that sort of thing in Argentina, too.)
The Buenos Aires background is almost perfect, as it's visually close enough to a Boston or Chicago to avoid this seeming like a "foreign film". The sub-titled dialogue is excellent-a solid script from beginning to end, and the direction of the movie is so flawless, that you quickly become unaware that the characters are speaking a different language.
The very concept for the movie is one of those brilliant ideas that you know that some Hollywood type will want to remake as an English language version (ala Open Your Eyes/Vanilla Sky). Leticia Bredice's performance as Valeria so resembles that of Julia Roberts in Ocean's 11, that you can already see her playing the role, for better or worse.
9 Queens is an innovative addition to the crime caper genre, and it's one of those movies that will probably slip under most people's radar. It is definitely worth seeking out if you're a fan of the genre, and it's something that should be carefully studied by any Hollywood director looking to do a complex heist film in the future.