| September 10, 2004

Directed by Gregory Jacobs and based on the Argentinean hit film Nine Queens (2000), Criminal is yet another addition to the homage-to-con-artists genre, centering around a veteran con, Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly), and his novice apprentice Rodrigo (Diego Luna). We are led through a day on the job, culminating in a high-risk, high-payoff con to sell a forged bill, supposedly the most valuable currency in the States. Inconveniently enough, Richard’s sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs the four star hotel in which the object of the heist resides, detests her brother with an unparalleled vehemence, and disapproves of his chosen profession. The conflict between brother and sister is the true heart of the movie, not the con jobs that surround them.
When I first saw the trailer for Criminal, I admit I was slightly disappointed. I’m a big Maggie Gyllenhaal fan, but it didn’t seem like the kind of film I would enjoy seeing, Fortunately, I stand corrected. Criminal is a thoroughly captivating crime film that succeeds in making even the audience feel that they can’t be sure where their loyalties lie. Are we rooting for the cold and emotionless Richard, the socially awkward and naive yet intelligent newcomer Rodrigo, or the sharp and sassy Valerie? Each character seems to have their own agenda and goals for the outcome of the sell of the bill, and each cares more for their own pocketbooks than is healthy.
I read another review that more than disparaged the film, basically saying that Luna’s performance was the only thing that stopped it from being absolutely painful, but I disagree entirely. I thought Criminal was full of surprises, holding my interest from beginning to end, and never becoming predictable. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough of the con-artist genre to find the plot predictable and cliché, but I really don’t believe that to be the case. I truly enjoyed myself while I was watching this cleverly crafted and well written film.
As usual, Gyllenhaal is absolutely magnetic, her eyes incredibly cold yet expressive. Luna as Rodrigo was a pleasant surprise, holding his own with the talent and relative celebrity that surrounded him in Reilly and Gyllenhaal. However, while Luna and Gyllenhaal were absolute delights, I feel that Reilly was miscast as the film’s antagonist/protagonist/anti-hero bad guy. Perhaps I have just grown so accustomed to seeing Reilly play the sad, pathetic, and pitiable man on the side (i.e. The Good Girl, Chicago, The Anniversary Party) that I had a hard time believing his adopted cold, greedy, and uncompromising demeanor. Whatever the case, I didn’t buy him as the relentless con artist who is willing to screw over even his own family. If I’m going to watch a man with seemingly no heart at all, I’d rather watch Tom Cruise in Collateral. And believe me, that is saying something.
Despite Reilly’s deficiency in the lead role, Criminal was a definite success in my book. And compared with the wasteland of other movies that opened this weekend, it’s absolutely stellar.

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