Argentinian filmmaker Fabian Bielinsky enjoyed a surprise hit in 2002 with his crackling con artist scheme Nine Queens. The intricate thriller about an established crook and his inexperienced protégé moved at such a rapid clip that it left your head swimming with twists until all the facts finally crashed into the table.
Criminal, first-time director Gregory Jacobs' generically-titled attempt at an American remake, performs the cinematic equivalent of the doggie paddle. It takes Bielinsky's well-paced con and changes just enough so that the story no longer makes any sense.
Jacobs casts John C. Reilly in the teacher role of Richard, a petty thief content to swindle kindly old ladies and clueless waiters at street cafes. Richard happens on amateur scammer Rodrigo (Diego Luna) during a botched casino job and takes the fledgling criminal under his wing. Their uneasy partnership gets off on the right foot when a lucrative scam surfaces involving a billionaire currency collector (Peter Mullan) and a forged bill he wishes to purchase.
Criminal preserves most of Bielinsky's surprises, but sitting through such a con proves difficult when you already know who is backstabbing whom and why. Important elements from Queens are misused, and the alternating plot paths create unchecked questions rather than tidy answers. Coincidences that created miniscule ripples in Queens threaten to wash Criminal out to sea. Most are included in the script to increase Rodrigo's value to the ongoing sting, anyway.
Queens is only four years old, and those lucky enough to catch it will find its intricacies still fresh in their brain. The cast smoothes out a few kinks but ultimately they create their own problems. Reilly defers to his naturally softer edge when attacking the hardened role. He's loud when he should be forceful, arrogant instead of confident. I hate to see good actresses wasted, especially those as capable as Maggie Gyllenhaal. Luna, meanwhile, hardly hides his guilty face. The actor's shifty eyes and half-disguised grin instantly tip observant audiences off to the fact that he might be sitting on something larger than we're led to believe.
Part of that comes down to direction. Jacobs served as first assistant director on every Steven Soderbergh film since 1998's Out of Sight, so it's no surprise that Criminal calls to mind the sleek and slick work of Mr. Solaris at more than a few intervals. Alex Wurman's snappy jazz score screams Ocean's Eleven, while the rapid-fire pattern of the characters' macho dialogue seems to stem from any and all of Soderbergh's scripts. Heck, Soderbergh and Clooney are executive producers here. What did you expect?
As a rule, though, no 87-minute movie should drag, yet Criminal glides as briskly as a hippopotamus in cement shoes. Backstories about Richard's prison stays and impromptu visits to Rodrigo's bankrupt father pad an already slender plot, which gives us ample time to catch up to the con and figure out twists before they occur. Even if you're unfamiliar with Queens, Criminal is an easy mark to make and a hard movie to sell to paying customers.
And the bartender's pouring watery drinks.