Lost in translation

Despite the presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the concierge sister of a scam artist, <i>Criminal</i> remains a somewhat, ahem, criminal adaptation of <i>Nueve Reinas</i>, a far-superior Argentine film.

Despite the presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the concierge sister of a scam artist, Criminal remains a somewhat, ahem, criminal adaptation of Nueve Reinas, a far-superior Argentine film.

Rated 2.0

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) was a modest, meandering 2001 Argentine caper more in the vein of The Sting than The Grifters that enjoyed huge success on the American art-house circuit. It was not poised for genre-busting or transcendental moviemaking but was intriguing and entertaining: a sort of gangly, spunky spring colt of a film that threatened to topple under its own weight at times. Its wallop was contingent upon its many clever twists and turns and its insider knowledge of the world of cons and scams and all things crooked.

I read about the film being remade in English under the title Criminal but did not realize until about 30 minutes into the production what a generically bad idea that really was. I wonder when or even if producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh and executive producer Mark Cuban (owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks) had that same sinking feeling. Nine Queens succeeded because it felt fresh and breezy. Criminal has arrived on its coattails much too soon and with much less exhilaration. It gradually feels more and more like yesterday’s news without the original’s exotic locale and any new surprises.

The story has shifted to Los Angeles, where veteran scam artist Richard (Chicago’s John C. Reilly) temporarily takes the younger nickel-and-dime hustler Rodrigo (Y tu mamá también’s Diego Luna) under his wing and grooms him for a few lucrative bunco enterprises. Richard’s usual partner has disappeared (“I unilaterally agreed to reapportionment” of one of their takes, Richard later admits), and Rodrigo desperately wants to make enough cash to clear up his father’s gambling debt before he is beaten or killed by goons. The union seems to be a coincidental stroke of mutual good fortune.

Richard decides to “Anglo up” Rodrigo by renaming him Brian; he then teaches his new partner a few of his swindles. A phone call from Richard’s sister (Secretary’s Maggie Gyllenhaal) beckons them to the five-star hotel where she works as concierge. Their arrival opens the lid on a hustle involving one of the most valuable pieces of currency ever printed by the U.S. Treasury Department (the title of Nine Queens referred to ultra-rare postage stamps). And an ongoing family feud immediately surfaces, in which Richard is trying to cheat both his sister and younger brother out of their family inheritance.

The casting of the three leads in the film is both good and bad. All three are commendable actors, but they are known more by art-house rather than multiplex audiences. And this is the very same crowd that flocked to see Nine Queens. Recasting with mainstream players may not have improved the film, but it certainly would have upped its chances to draw a new audience.

Reilly is the personification of arrogance and vice who sneers at civilian jobs (“On top of taking shit all day, they can fire you,” he says) and contends he cannot be choosy about his marks, which include elderly ladies, because he has a dubious lifestyle to support. Luna is passable but rather vanilla as the protégé who knows a few tricks of the trade of his own (“One thing money and practice can’t buy—you look like a nice guy,” says Richard). And Gyllenhaal shines as the spiteful sibling with several axes to grind.

The supporting roles include the always credible Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe) as a sleazy millionaire. The script is effectively laced with humor (insurance scams are out, says Richard: “The good hands at Allstate will choke you until your eyes pop out”). And the soundtrack is an aural Eden for fans of jazz-organ combos. On the downside, a Coke can in the hand of Rodrigo makes one suspect that either Luna was eating lunch on the run or a last-minute product placement was jammed into the action, or at least one transitional scene had been left on the cutting-room floor.

Criminal is about the feeding cycle of and our vulnerability to a human shark. One of its themes is the old adage that “what goes around comes around.” Ironically for this film, that cycle arrives much too soon under the direction of veteran assistant director Gregory Jacobs—and with no new spins.