THE KID (Diego Luna) is in a spot. He's just been caught trying to swindle two waitresses out of their change money at a casino. It's an old scam. And someone is watching knowingly. Just before the goons drag the kid away, the silent observer (John C. Reilly) steps in. Pulls out a badge, cuffs the perp and hauls him out of there.
In "Criminal," this is the beginning of a brand-new partnership. Richard, the stranger, is a con man, and he has been looking for someone to work with on a couple of schemes. And Rodrigo, the guy he just saved from a possible prison stint, is only too eager to entertain the idea of making big money. His father, he tells Richard, is ailing and snowed under with gambling debt, so Rodrigo needs to make some serious cash.
Not long after they start working together, a big job falls into their lap. Richard's sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a concierge at an exclusive Los Angeles hotel, tells her brother that a stranger named Ochoa (Zitto Kazann) has caused an embarrassing scene in the lobby. Trying to hustle a rich hotel guest, he has collapsed and mentioned Richard's name.
Valerie wants Richard's associates out of her lobby. Richard smells an opportunity. He interrogates Ochoa and takes over the old man's scheme: to bilk a businessman named Hannigan (Peter Mullan) for more than half a million. Rodrigo wants in, naturally.
This scenario will be familiar to anyone who saw the fabulous 2000 Argentine film "Nine Queens." Debut director Gregory Jacobs (who has worked as an assistant director for Steven Soderbergh and many others) and co-writer Soderbergh (under the pseudonym Sam Lowry) have remade (or retold) writer-director Fabian Bielinsky's Spanish-language film, which starred Ricardo Darin as the veteran hustler and Gaston Pauls as the young man he recruits.
"Criminal" is essentially the same story but with inevitable American flourishes. Thus, the original plot, which concerned a stamp collection worth a few grand, becomes a story with bigger financial gain: a rare 19th-century Monroe Silver Certificate that's worth considerably more. In the 2000 film, the veteran con man meets the kid in a convenience store. In "Criminal," it's in a casino because, I don't know, Soderbergh made "Ocean's Eleven" and because casinos suggest more moola? Who knows? Heaven forbid things stay small and delicate.
This isn't meant to be a dissing of "Criminal." It's just to emphasize how good "Nine Queens" is, and how it would be well worth your time to track it down and appreciate Bielinsky's film. "Criminal," which delineates many of the subsidiary relationships more fully than the original, is still pretty darn good.
Reilly and Luna make a chemically appealing screen team. Reilly, one of the best working actors in the indie side of things, is wonderfully world-weary, manipulative and roguishly charming. And Luna -- Gael Garcia Bernal's co-performer in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- makes a terrifically engaging foil as Rodrigo. His quiet presence becomes a strength of its own; and Richard soon realizes this kid's got more gumption than he ever imagined.
The entire cast is good. Gyllenhaal makes a memorably determined soul who has to put aside long-term resentments against her brother to help him in a desperate mission. And Mullan, the unforgettable star of "My Name Is Joe," and the writer-director of "The Magdelene Sisters," makes a terrifically raspy Scot with money and well-dressed concierges on his blunt mind.
Like "Nine Queens," this movie exults in the hypnotic appeal of the con game; how vicariously thrilling it is for us to experience a scam from the predator's point of view. We're safe from being victimized ourselves, for one thing. We are in the driver's seat, for another. We feel a new sense of power -- in a world divided into the takers and the taken. No guilt, no crime. We just get to watch, as Rodrigo proves to Richard he can persuade a woman to part voluntarily with her handbag in two minutes. It takes an elevator and a resourceful mind to make this happen. Watch closely.
CRIMINAL (R, 87 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual situations. At the Avalon, Landmark's E Street Cinema and Muvico Egyptian 24.