The clever and witty "Criminal," a remake of the Argentine movie "Nine Queens" by first-time director Gregory Jacobs, takes place over one eventful day in the life of two con men who stumble onto the scam of a lifetime, apparently by accident. Except there are no accidents in bunco movies.
Rodrigo (Diego Luna) is a Mexican American kid from East L.A. who walks into a drab casino in Gardena and proceeds to pull the well-worn "change for a hundred" routine on a couple of waitresses. One of them calls security. A man flashes a badge at Rodrigo, handcuffs him and hauls him out to the parking lot.
The man is Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly), and he's not really a cop, but a con man looking for a new partner. Gaddis persuades Rodrigo (whom he immediately re-christens "Brian" in an effort, he tells him, to "Anglo you up a little") to try it out for a day and see how he likes it. It's the no-money-down, no-payments-for-30-days approach to crime partnering, and Rodrigo, whose father is deep in hock to some sinister Russians, agrees.
"Criminal" is plotted like an elaborate swindle; distrust permeates its characters like an enveloping smog. As in David Mamet's cinematic thimblerig, "House of Games," there is no breathable atmosphere outside the con game. Anyone who gets wind of it wants a piece of it.
Gaddis and Rodrigo go a-gypping in Beverly Hills, where the elder con instructs his apprentice in the finer points of ripping people off the white collar way. Rule No. 1: If you want people to hand you their money, look like you have money.
Rodrigo prefers the soft-spoken, ingratiating approach, where you help a nice lady and she happily hands you her purse to hold. Gaddis grants Rodrigo this: "You have one thing money and practice can't buy. You look like a nice guy." With his pixilated skin and low forehead, Reilly infuses this line with the wistfulness of someone who knows.
Rodrigo has eyes like a pair of hot chocolate chips and the wispy, Cantinflas-esque mustache of a patsy. He also has something even more valuable: access to a vast world Gaddis doesn't even notice. As they shuttle between the Eastside, the Westside and downtown, Rodrigo slips into Spanish when he needs someone to believe him. Spanish-speaking marks trust the implicit kinship, while non-Spanish-speakers just assume he's reverted to some unguarded true self. Either way, he's in.
"Criminal" is full of entertainingly caustic observations about this alternate universe hidden in plain sight. When Gaddis asks Rodrigo what his name is, Rodrigo first replies with the correct pronunciation. One look at Gaddis' face prompts him to translate. "Roe-dree-goe," he drawls, eyelids sagging in contempt.The plot snaps into action after Gaddis gets an unexpected call from his sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who works as a concierge at a luxury hotel downtown. She's calling to tell Gaddis that an elderly man came in demanding to see a VIP guest, an antique currency collector named William Hannigan (Peter Mullan), then collapsed on the lobby floor screaming Gaddis' name when he was refused access. The man turns out to be Ochoa (Zitto Kazann), a former partner of Gaddis' who has spent a year making two perfect copies of an extremely rare antique dollar bill. Ochoa needs Gaddis' help.
Soon enough, "Criminal" springs into the causal inevitability of a game of Mousetrap, as character after character insinuates himself into the plan and Gaddis' cut gets smaller and smaller. We know someone is pulling something, and someone is going to get away with something, and someone is going to be left holding the bag of cheese, but Jacobs keeps us on our toes.
"Criminal" captures Los Angeles in a straightforward, naturalistic way, neighborhood-hopping like a native. And Jacobs' angle on the co-mingling of cultures -- a theme often mushed into artificial pudding -- is funny, original and very well observed.
The one thing I found myself missing was more Gaddis. Reilly brings so much complexity and depth to even the smallest of roles that I savored the anticipation of revelations about Gaddis. . But "Criminal" is not interested in that kind of character payoff, so that in the end all mysteries are revealed except perhaps the most intriguing one.
But then a movie can do much worse than to leave you wanting more.
MPAA rating: R for language
Richard Gaddis...John C. Reilly
William Hannigan...Peter Mullan
Warner Independent Pictures presents, in association with 2929 Entertainment, a Section Eight production, released by Warner Independent Pictures. Director Gregory Jacobs. Producers Gregory Jacobs, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh. Executive producers Jennifer Fox, Ben Cosgrove, Georgia Kacandes, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban. Screenplay by Gregory Jacobs & Sam Lowry, based on the film "Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)," written and directed by Fabian Bielinsky. Cinematographer Chris Menges. Editor Stephen Mirrone. Costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. Music Alex Wurman. Production designer Philip Messina. Set decorator Kristen Toscano Messina. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In selected theaters.