October 6, 2005
Based on the movie, Nine Queens (2000), Criminal (2004) is the directorial debut of Gregory Jacobs, a protégé of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (who also co-produced the movie). Stylistically speaking, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. The way this film is lit and the extensive use of hand-held cameras are reminiscent of Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000). However, this is where the similarities end.
Rodrigo (Luna) is a small-time grifter who unsuccessfully tries to rip-off casino waitresses for chump change. He catches the eye of Richard (Reilly), a more experienced con-artist who is looking for a new partner. He proceeds to give Rodrigo a crash-course in grifting. Richard is a slick operator who is good at gaining people’s confidence but he also sees most people as dumb marks ripe for the fleecing, while Rodrigo still has some remnants of a conscience.
Richard tries to get everything he can for free, sometimes on purpose and sometimes just to show-off or for kicks. Soon, Richard’s sister, Valerie (Gyllenhaal) enters the picture. They have an antagonistic relationship and there’s visible tension between them that runs deeper than simple sibling rivalry.
Valerie hips John and Rodrigo to a potential score: fleece an antique-currency collector named William Hannigan (Mullan) for $750,000. However, as with these kinds of movies it is never easy and our protagonists are faced with several plot twists that complicate things significantly.
Like most movies of this kind, we spend most of the time trying to figure out who’s conning whom and who (if anyone) is on the straight and narrow. And so you have to assume, going in, that everyone is lying because in this world and with these kinds of characters, they all have their own agenda. Everybody wants something.
It’s nice to see a veteran character actor like John C. Reilly get to carry a movie instead of supporting others. He effortlessly disappears into his roles and this one is no different as he plays a no-nonsense con-man. The reason actors like doing grifter movies is that they are essentially about acting. Con artists are always playing a role and they have to do it flawlessly if they are to get what they want.
It’s not that Criminal is a bad film because it isn’t, but at the end of the day it feels more like David Mamet-lite with a dash of Soderbergh style for good measure.