- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

“Criminal,” a straightforward remake of a recent Argentine movie, reintroduces us to two folks whose work we know well, directly or indirectly.

First the indirectly. Director Gregory Jacobs has toiled as an understudy — they call them assistant directors in the biz — on many of Steven Soderbergh’s movies.

Here, he’s in the director’s chair for the first time, although the boss looms large as producer, co-writer (“Sam Lowry” is a Soderbergh pseudonym) and fan of funky music scores.

If Mr. Soderbergh were helming, he may have cast George Clooney as “Criminal’s” Richard Gaddis, a small-time L.A. con artist who’s about to trick a rich television executive (Peter Mullan) and currency hobbyist into buying a facsimile of a rare Treasury note.

But Mr. Clooney, who co-produced the movie, would have been a bad fit for “Criminal.” Mr. Clooney, he of the ready quip and handsome face, plays goons with more worldly charm and experience. They’d be too busy with bigger game — Vegas casino vaults, for instance. They’d have no time for such small-dollar counterfeit scams.

“Criminal” thrives on the performance of the other guy whose work we know well, the redoubtable character actor John C. Reilly.

Mr. Reilly has played, at different calibrations: the well-meaning, unappreciated hugga-bear in movies such as “Magnolia” and “The Hours.” In “Chicago,” he was pitch-perfect as Amos Hart, aka “Mister Cellophane.”

In a rare leading role here, Mr. Reilly is basically a harmless thug, a conniving mercenary, but there’s still something huggable — something Reillyesque — about him.

When he spies Rodrigo (Diego Luna) on a casino floor scamming cocktail waitresses trying to make change without benefit of a cash register, Gaddis takes the promising young grifter under his wing. (Gaddis’ partner, referred to only as “The Jew,” is on the outs.)

As a tandem, they bilk “marks” such as trusting grandmothers and cafe staff that would rather part with a C-note than make a scene.

It’s mostly penny-ante crime, but it affords Gaddis a decent lifestyle — nice suits, a $60,000 Mercedes and freedom from, you know, a job, responsibility, obligations and all that.

To bag Hannigan, the TV exec, though, Gaddis needs help from an estranged sister (sultry Maggie Gyllenhaal) who works the concierge desk at the Biltmore Hotel, where Hannigan will stay just one more night before jetting out of the country to skirt tax liabilities.

Time is of the essence, and as the scam grows more complicated, more scammers want a piece of the action. After a short while it becomes unclear who’s scamming whom and Mr. Jacobs gradually torques up the character interplay before a final supreme twist.

I didn’t see Fabian Bielinsky’s “Nine Queens,” on which this is based, so I can’t judge how “Criminal” compares. But on its own merits, it’s somewhat less entertaining than Mr. Soderbergh’s hot-and-flashy “Ocean’s Eleven” ensemble, but far better than most American buddy capers.

Mr. Luna, still trying to capitalize on the success of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” won’t find much of a star vehicle in “Criminal”; he’s a quiet, tentative presence here, the straight man to Mr. Reilly’s often comic scene-chewer.

For the first time in his career, John C. Reilly rules a movie, and it’s a pleasure to watch.

***

TITLE: “Criminal”

RATING: R (Profanity; brief violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Gregory Jacobs. Produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. Written by Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Soderbergh, based on Fabian Bielinsky’s 2000 movie “Nine Queens.” Cinematography by Chris Menges. Music by Alex Wurman.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.criminalmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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