Criminal tells the story of two con artists, a man and a boy, who team up to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime sting. The boy, Rodrigo, is played by Diego Luna (from Y Tu Mama Tambien). He's a young Mexican immigrant in LA, scraping out a living as a small time hustler. He isn't very good at it. In the opening scene, he's caught trying to cheat the waitresses in a downmarket casino. Before security can haul him away, a middle-aged detective (John C Reilly) steps out of the crowd, handcuffs him and takes him into custody. It's Rodrigo's lucky day: outside in the car park, the cop takes the cuffs off and confesses the badge is fake and he's a conman himself, albeit a much more experienced one. His name's Richard, he's in need of a new partner and he sees potential in young Rodrigo. The kid hesitantly accepts the offer and allows Richard to show him the ropes and take him along on some basic cons.
The big sting comes out of nowhere. Richard's sister Val (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a hotel concierge, calls to tell him that an elderly acquaintance of his, Ochoa (Zitto Kazann) has collapsed in her lobby and is asking for him. Richard soon discovers the reason the old man is there: he's trying to sell a forgery of a vintage bond certificate, the most valuable piece of paper ever issued by the United States Treasury. A very wealthy collector named Hannigan (Peter Mullan) is in town for the day, staying at the hotel and, if he can be fooled by the counterfeit note, the score might be worth up to a million dollars. Richard agrees to front Ochoa's sting, for an extortionate percentage and, despite his misgivings about taking a novice along on such an important job, he decides Rodrigo might just be useful.
I haven't seen Nine Queens, the Argentinian thriller on which Criminal is based but I believe those who say it's a lot better than the remake. Criminal has a hollowness at its centre that's common to a lot of remakes and sequels. It feels like an exercise, like a film that's been made because somebody saw another film and wanted to copy it. It's an efficient piece of film-making and it does have strengths of its own - the acting in particular - but it lacks something. It never quite comes to life.
It's a shame because the film contains a superb central performance by John C Reilly, one of America's best character actors. Reilly has built up quite a reputation with his supporting roles in films like Boogie Nights, Chicago and The Aviator. Promoted at last to star, he doesn't disappoint. His character, Richard, is a truly despicable lowlife, a man whose vileness grows the more we get to know him. Reilly humanises him, makes him three dimensional and even allows us to empathise with him in places. We feel his desperation. This is one of the most compelling pieces of acting you'll see this year. Comparisons to Robert De Niro's work in Raging Bull would not be undeserved.
A character this fascinating deserves a deeper and more ambitious movie, a movie like Raging Bull. Criminal, for all its edgy, indie-movie style, is just another caper flick where everything hinges on a twist ending that reveals what's really been going on. There have been a lot of movies recently about cons and heists and a lot of movies with twist endings and this one doesn't stand out from the pack. Its climactic twist is unimaginative and easily guessable. The clues are dropped with such a lack of subtlety that I assumed the film was trying to misdirect us and it would actually go off in another direction. It didn't.
Criminal is directed by Gregory Jacobs, who's worked as an assistant director to Steven Soderbergh. It's also produced and co-written by his mentor so it shouldn't come as a surprise that it looks and feels like a Soderbergh film. In look and subject matter, it isn't a million miles from Ocean's Twelve. I could write the same capsule review of both films: that they're well made and not without their pleasures but that they're ultimately unsatisfying and a little pointless. If you must see a Soderbergh sting movie, Criminal is probably the one to watch. It doesn't have the big budget gloss of Ocean's Twelve but it does have that great John C Reilly performance and good supporting turns by Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Mullan. That's better value for money than watching a bunch of smug, A-list stars preening themselves.