Greed makes the world go around, at least it does in the seedy world of CRIMINAL. This re-make of the Argentinian film, NINE QUEENS, has been re-imagined by writer/director Gregory Jacobs as a quirky daylight noir with a plot that spins on a dime as its twists and turns on its way to proving that it’s that same greed, not love, (pace Shakespeare) that doth make fools of us all. The case study is twenty-four hours in the life of one Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly), a small-time Los Angeles con man with two strikes against him, a messy family situation, and a recent messy breakup with his last partner in crime.
We meet him as he’s remedying that last problem by saving an inept would-be con man, Rodrigo (Diego Luna), from himself after a con gone wrong in a casino. He offers to take the younger man under his wing and show him the ropes. Richard is a man alert to life’s endless opportunities to make a dishonest buck, and far from being an altruistic gesture, he needs a partner to pull in enough to get by. Roderigo, whom he re-names Brian, may not be a natural, but he has one thing Richard lacks, he looks like a nice guy. In fact, in the person of Luna is almost angelic with his sweet face and languid eyes. Richard, in the person of Reilly, on the other hand, looks like a cherubic doofus, which also comes in handy when pulling a scam, but Reilly can change that mask into something cold and mean, very mean once the con is over. A phone call from his sad-eyed but hard-bitten sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), dumps the con of a lifetime in Richard’s lap in the form of an old business associate of his who has collapsed in the swank hotel where she toils, elegantly, as a concierge. Never mind that it involves rare currency, counterfeit, of course, and a mark, a cut-throat media mogul (Peter Mullan), that is way out of Richard’s league with his slightly ill-fitting suits that he thinks makes him look like a millionaire. It’s just too tempting to walk away from, even when things turn complicated, which, naturally, they do.
The fun of a film like this is watching the characters cope with what fate throws at them. Richard, a flinty cynic as interested in making fools of his marks as he is in taking their money, Brian, bursting with a cheerful elann at how easy it all is while stomping out the last annoying vestiges of his conscience, are two guys thrown together by necessity but maintaining a chummy sort of wariness and a tricky sort of one-upsmanship. Together they negotiate a landscape where the sands shift quickly and without warning, and where the best laid plans are the ones that are the easiest to derail, and everyone devolves to the lowest common moral denominator, it?s just a question of when.
In keeping with the characters, the look of the film presents Los Angeles as a city as run down as they are. There is no glamour lighting in the dives and taco joints that Richard frequents, nor in Valerie’s posh hotel, which renders it into something more shabby that soign鮠The sound of traffic is omnipresent and that bright southern California sunlight beats down with the same mercilessness that Richard feels for the old ladies and soccer moms he takes for a metaphorical ride. The air of desperation it all creates is palpable.
CRIMINAL trots along at a good clip as Richard desperately tries to stay a half-step ahead of the game on which he thought he had a handle. There’s no question of rooting for him, even though he’s almost a Boy Scout compared to his mark, but watching him squirm, scheme, and squawk through it all is, for some reason, deeply satisfying.