Combustible Celluloid
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With: John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan, Jonathan Tucker, Maeve Quinlan, Zitto Kazann, Brandon Keener, Brent Sexton, Soledad St. Hilaire, Gary L. Mack
Written by: Gregory Jacobs, "Sam Lowry" (Steven Soderbergh), based on a screenplay by Fabian Bielinsky
Directed by: Gregory Jacobs
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 87
Date: 03/18/2013

Criminal (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Smooth 'Criminal'

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

It's almost always a good sign when a movie jumps right into a pivotalscene, not bothering with opening credits, establishing scenes or anypre-fabricated title sequence.

It means the filmmaker is focused on telling a good story, and in Criminal, director Gregory Jacobs wastes no time showing a very green small-time con artist (Diego Luna) being rescued from arrest by a life-long (but no less petty) short-con expert (John C. Reilly) who had been watching him pull a clumsy $20 scam on several casino waitresses.

In need of a new partner, Reilly takes the kid under his wing, and in a matter of hours they've swindled $200 from a little old lady (while butting heads over Luna's hypocritical selective conscience), ripped off a restaurant for another $100 in a change scam, and faked a minor car accident to get a stranger to pony up for gas money -- all in a day's "work" for the unconscionable elder crook.

But when they stumble onto a chance to pull a six-figure big con -- involving a media-mogul currency collector (Peter Mullan) and a meticulously forged antique treasury note -- the stakes shoot up exponentially, and so do the consequences.

Habitual duplicity and backstabbing create a stimulating, deceptively intricate plot maze in this sharp, shrewd, but not showy remake of the 2000 Argentine import Nine Queens, co-written by Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh (albeit under a pseudonym).

Soon our sympathetic (Luna) and not not-so-sympathetic (Reilly) anti-heroes are both out of their depth and trying to stay cool, so badly entwined in a scam that's gotten away from them that Reilly is even prepared to prostitute his estranged sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- a willowy concierge at the collector's high-class hotel -- to keep his fish on the hook. Then the question becomes, how does he approach her with this when she already hates his conniving guts and aggressively resents his running a sting on her turf.

Jacobs' low-key, low-budget style gives this film an immediacy that, along with tangy but understated performances, lends palpable empathy to every character -- be they victims, crooks, or something in between. As a result, no matter which way the cards fall in the end, Criminal would be equally satisfying.

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