Movies You Might Have Missed: Criminal

Title: Criminal
Release Date: 2004
Rating: R
Length: 87 minutes
Director: Gregory Jacobs
Starring: John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Language: English
Country: USA

No, not this Criminal, this Criminal.

It’s not an original picture, but a remake of an Argentinian film called Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens). In the original, a pair of con men attempt to sell a sheet of (nine) counterfeit stamps. In this version, it’s a very old “silver certificate”. They’re both good, but I like the American version better mostly because of John C. Reilly. It’s a movie about con men and an elaborate con, so I’ll try to keep from spoiling too much, but don’t worry about the item. It’s a macguffin for the plot and characters to revolve around.

The film opens in the LA area with Reilly stepping in and saving Luna’s character from being busted for a small scam in a small, seedy, local casino. It turns out Reilly is a con man on a somewhat larger scale, with more experience, and a broader skill set. Is it just professional courtesy, does he see in Luna a replacement for his newly lost partner, or is Luna a mark? In any event, he offers Luna some pointers and they agree to work some cons that require more than one person on a trial basis. Partway through their day, however, a counterfeiting associate calls Reilly for help selling a fake silver certificate to a wealthy British businessman and collector who is visiting Los Angeles.

Reilly forces his way to a lion’s share of the six-figure con by trading on the counterfeiter’s desperation for someone to execute the sale of the fake bill. He’s prepared to toss Luna out on his ear too, until Luna blackmails his way into the operation by threatening to blow the whole thing up. The whole scheme is precarious and convoluted and becoming more so at every turn.

Reilly and Luna have to bribe, swindle, and beg a number of people for help in making all the arrangements. This turns out to include Reilly’s estranged sister, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, with whom he is locked in a legal battle over the rights to their parents estate. That, in turn, is complicated by a younger brother who idolizes Reilly. Luna also sees his chances and renegotiates his cut every time he is useful for furthering the plot. Luna and Reilly’s mutual distrust and inclinations to scam and con everyone, including each other, create plenty of twists and turns.

The resolution is good, but it’s not Mamet. The real joy for me in this film is watching Reilly who is magnetic and amazing on screen, and my simple delight in almost any heist/con movie. The bit parts are solidly filled and benefit from not having famous faces in most of them. (Even Luna, at the time, was not so well known.) It’s a clever, competent film that should satisfy most folks, and especially anyone who likes a good flick about heists or con men.

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