Ever get the feeling youre being played?
Soledad St. Hilaire
Running Time: 87 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15
Country: United States
“Lowry!” Ian Holm shouts forlornly in Terry Gilliam’s fabulous Brazil (1985), “Has anyone seen Sam Lowry?”. Well, watch the credits of ‘Criminal’ closely, and there he is: Sam Lowry, listed alongside director Gregory Jacobs as the film’s second co-writer. Not that this is the ‘real’ Lowry – it is in fact a jokey nom de plume adopted by Steven Soderbergh, for whom Jacobs has acted as assistant director for many years – and while Jacobs’ directorial debut ‘Criminal’ has no direct connection to Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’, it is a remake of ‘Nueve Reinas’/’9 Queens’ (2000), written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky in Argentina, er, right next door to Brazil. Besides, Soderberbergh’s decision to cloak his identity under a false name is well-suited to a film about a double-act of poker-faced con artists.
When grifter Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly) sees the less experienced Rodrigo (Diego Luna) get caught pulling a nickel-and-dime con in an LA Casino, he quickly rescues the younger man by impersonating a police officer, and offers to show Rodrigo some tricks of the con artist’s trade in exchange for Rodrigo’s assistance on the job. The pair chance upon a rare opportunity – a brilliant forgery of an extremely rare 1878 Monroe Silver Certificate, and a billionaire collector named Hannigan (Peter Mullan) who will pay through the nose to have it and is not in town long enough to get it properly verified – and seemingly the only thing standing between them and the perfect con is Richard’s sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is concierge at the hotel where Hannigan is staying, and who has harbored a venomous hatred for Richard ever since he swindled her out of an inheritance. As things go wrong and the stakes get higher, Richard and Rodrigo have to talk fast, think on their feet, and start trusting each other – except that Richard has a nasty habit of betraying those closest to him…
In the opening scene of ‘Criminal’, Rodrigo learns the hard way that if you pull the same trick once too often, you are likely to get caught out. Of course, the lesson applies equally to this remake, which for all its virtues – fine acting, naturalistic cinematography, tight plotting, endless narrative surprises – has very little to add to the original ’9 Queens’. Sure the action has shifted to LA (with some new emphasis on that city’s social and racial tensions), the language is now English (although in a nod to the original, the film opens with subtitled Spanish), and the rare stamps which gave the original its title have been turned into a rare Certificate of Circulation – but all this is purely cosmetic tinkering, while the essential plot, right down to its final head-spinning twist, remains completely unaltered, so that anyone who has seen the original will be left wondering whether there is really any point to a retread like this so soon afterwards. Still, the plot is so ingenious that its construction is better appreciated second time round – and if you have not seen the original, you are in for a sort of ‘Training Day’ for confidence tricksters, an exciting 24-hour tour of LA’s underworld with a headache-inducing sting in its tail.
It's Got: Fine acting; naturalistic cinematography by Chris Menges; ingeniously tight plotting; a succession of narrative surprises culminating in a mindspinning twist.
It Needs: To be a little more original - even if it is a remake.
Alternatives:Nine Queens, The Matchstick Man, Training Day
Tense and twisty grifter remake – but so close to the original, it's criminal.