‘Criminal,’ a taut caper film with a fair payoff
Richard Gaddis never hides the fact that he is not to be trusted. Played by John C. Reilly in Gregory Jacobs’ caper film “Criminal,” Gaddis reveals to one and all, even with a measure of pride, that he is a con man. And a good one: He drives a new Mercedes, has contacts in high places and doesn’t generally stoop to associate with common street swindlers.
So why is Gaddis slumming in a low-rent Los Angeles casino, transparently looking for a literal partner in crime? The answer, as Gaddis tells Rodrigo (Diego Luna), the small-time thief trying to pull the old hundred-dollar-bill scam on a pair of seasoned cocktail waitresses, is that his regular partner has split.
We know ” or have very good reason to suspect ” that Gaddis is full of it. For one thing, he repeatedly tells or hints to Rodrigo that he is a scammer, and proves it to him by demonstrating his skills in a series of quickie jobs. Furthermore, every bit of dialogue in “Criminal” is fraught with hidden meanings, apparent side deals and secret pasts. Jacobs and co-screenwriter Steven Soderbergh (credited here as Sam Lowry, but who takes a co-producer credit under his own name, along with George Clooney) do a splendid job of giving heft to the 87-minute film by injecting a strong element of back story. As he and Rodrigo slink around Los Angeles, from bar to cafe to street corner, Gaddis is constantly on his cell phone, dropping hints about his life of crime. There’s the cop tailing him; his sister and brother involved in a legal battle over an inheritance; various underworld contacts. Reilly does his usual convincing job, this time by sealing himself off, not giving out more information than is necessary. All Rodrigo needs to know is that Gaddis is a serious player, that where he goes, ill-gained money is certain to follow.
Like clockwork, a potential huge caper falls into Gaddis’ lap within hours of getting Rodrigo on the hook. An old comrade, the elderly Spaniard Ochoa, has created an expert forgery of a rare American bank note. Ochoa even has a customer in mind ” Hannigan, an Irish multimillionaire. And Gaddis happens to have an “in” to Hannigan; his sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the executive concierge at the hotel where Hannigan is staying.
But wait ” there’s plenty more to make Rodrigo, and viewers, suspicious. Because of potential tax liabilities, Hannigan needs to leave the United States by nightfall, making speed of the essence. Also in the mix is Michael, Gaddis and Valerie’s troubled youngest brother. Rearing its head is the nasty lawsuit amongst the siblings.
That’s enough of the setup to know that “Criminal” is a tight, well-plotted caper film. At this point, there are enough potential schemes and shady characters that a viewer should be suspicious of everyone, and every slightest move. But even with the antennae fully extended, it would be difficult to predict who actually gets scammed, and how.
“Criminal” was based rather precisely on the 2000 Argentine hit “Nine Queens.” That film featured an extra plot twist, having little to do with the caper, that gave it an extraordinary ending. “Criminal” shortchanges fans of “Nine Queens” by ending as soon as the scam is revealed. “Criminal” remains worthwhile, but for a richer experience, go to the original.
“Criminal” shows at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House Sunday through Tuesday, Oct. 17-19.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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