More a tribute than a remake, Steven Soderbergh-approved take on Argentine hit "Nine Queens" isn't quite as sharp or surprising as the original. But "Criminal's" all aces as a performance piece showing off the contrasting styles of John C. Reilly and suddenly ubiquitous Mexican Diego Luna. Generically titled pic will be an easy sell to indie-minded auds.

A correction was made to this review on June 30, 2004.

More a tribute than a remake, Steven Soderbergh-approved take on Argentine hit “Nine Queens” isn’t quite as sharp or surprising as the original, one of the best scam pics of the past decade. But “Criminal’s” all aces as a performance piece showing off the contrasting styles of John C. Reilly and suddenly ubiquitous Mexican Diego Luna. Breezy touch and hip, no-fuss style will make the generically titled pic an easy sell to indie-minded auds who like Mamet-style head games without all the excess baggage. Warner Independent Pictures is set to let “Criminal” escape in September.

Reilly, playing up his urbane smarts for a change, is Richard Gaddis, a well-suited gadabout who has developed a low-profile system of bilking many nobodies out of small amounts of money every day. He smells bigger fish frying when he spies scruffy Rodrigo (Luna) pulling clumsy tricks at a low-end Los Angeles casino.

Faster than you can say “Matchstick Men,” he has taken the youngster under his wing, and is teaching him the gist of the artful dodge. Richard is a bit put-off by the lad’s willingness to make a mess, but he’s also impressed by Rodrigo’s improvisational skills. So when a really complicated grift falls in his lap, he decides to cut the kid in.

The scam involves a brilliantly counterfeited antique bank note that shows up just in time to be fobbed off on a fabulously rich collector who is about to leave town. (In a nifty bit of casting, he’s played by Scottish helmer-scripter Peter Mullan.) In order to pull off the hustle, Richard has to call in all kinds of favors and give away increasing percentages of the deal.

Things are complicated by the presence of his sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a concierge at the hotel where the swap for money will take place. She’s angry about a lawsuit tying up their family’s assets.

Helmer Gregory Jacobs gives pic a loose-limbed, amiable style that is supported by Chris Menges’ fluid lensing and Alex Wurman’s funky score, which leans on greasy organ sounds. Argentine pic’s denouement turned on the currency crisis that country has been facing for some time, while the Yank version concentrates more on class and culture stratification in L.A.

Mostly, though, this is a chance for Reilly to strut his stuff — so good he ought to be illegal — in harmony or against the grain with a variety of terrific character actors. Luna continues his easygoing ascension into Hollywood firmament. Gyllenhaal is the only weak link. She looks uncomfortable in the classic femme fatale role, adding a note of dress-up to an otherwise deliciously gritty ensemble job.

Criminal

Production

A Warner Independent Pictures release of a Section 8 Prods. /Criminal Films production. Produced by Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney. Executive producers, Jennifer Fox, Ben Cosgrove, Georgia Kacandes, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban. Directed by Gregory Jacobs. Screenplay, Jacobs, Sam Lowry, based on a screenplay by Fabian Bielinsky.

Crew

Camera (color), Chris Menges; editor, Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione; music, Alex Wurman; production designer, Philip Messina; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; set decorator, Kristen Toscano Messina; sound (Dolby), Oscar Mitt; associate producer, Andrew Webster; assistant director, Dax Lough; casting, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 10, 2004. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Richard Gaddis - John C. Reilly Rodrigo - Diego Luna Valerie Gaddis - Maggie Gyllenhaal Michael Gaddis - Jonathan Tucker Hannigan - Peter Mullan
With: Zitto Kazann, Brandon Keener, Gary L. Mack, Maeve Quinlan, Brent Sexton, Soledad St. Hilaire.

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