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Immorality Is Fought by More Immorality in "Criminal"

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2004 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
Immorality Is Fought by More Immorality in "Criminal"

Release Date:  September 10, 2004
Rating:  R (for language)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Run Time: 1 hr. 27 min.
Director:  Gregory Jacobs
Actors:    John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Mullin, Zitto Kazaan

If it’s a con movie you’re after, with an “end justifies the means” comeuppance, this movie fits the bill.  But look a little closer and you might notice some discrepancies.

When Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly) spots Rodrigo (Diego Luna) conning casino waitresses, he impersonates a police officer and escorts the young man outside, where he proposes that they work together.  Gaddis’ partner, “The Jew,” is otherwise occupied, and he needs a new one.  Rodrigo accepts, because he’s desperate to pay off his father’s debt to the Russian mafia.  Soon Gaddis is showing Rodrigo how to con old ladies and restaurants, although the Mexican “chole” has a few tricks of his own for Gaddis.

Things take an interesting turn when Gaddis’ sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) insists that he come to the upscale Beverly Hills hotel where she works.  Gaddis’ occasional business partner, Ochoa (Zitto Kazaan), has fallen in the hotel lobby and is screaming for Gaddis, making a scene that concierge Valerie is quick to stifle.  Gaddis doesn’t want anything to do with the guy, until he learns that Ochoa has a counterfeit 1878 Monroe Silver Certificate, which Ochoa’s son-in-law, who works for the U.S. Treasury, confirms is one of the most valuable pieces of currency to have ever been printed.  Ochoa was trying to sell it to the wealthy industrialist William Hannigan (Peter Mullins), who is staying at the hotel, when Valerie caught him.  Ochoa knows Hannigan is interested, but the deal must be made quickly, because Hannigan’s U.S. visa expires in a few hours.

Gaddis and Rodrigo strike a deal with Hannigan for $750,000, only to see their profits slowly eaten away by all the other people who want in.  Ochoa wants cash up front for his stake, which means that Rodrigo must pony up the $38,000 he’s saved for his father.  Valerie wants another kind of payment for her involvement:  Gaddis’ confession to their brother Michael (Jonathan Tucker) that he’s been conning them for the family inheritance.  Then, to Gaddis’ further dismay, Hannigan insists on a little signing bonus: an “evening” with Valerie.  But who's conning whom, here?  Can anyone be trusted?

A remake of Fabian Biellinsky’s 2004 Argentinian film, “Nine Queens,” this version is directed by Gregory Jacobs in his directorial debut (Jacobs has served as assistant director on a wide variety of films), and the effort isn’t bad for a first-timer.  Steven Soderbergh’s script and the characters, however, hamper its flow. For example, Gaddis insists that you have to look like you have money to con people (he drives a new Mercedes), but doesn’t make the grungy Rodrigo shave or even tuck in his shirt.  After lecturing Rodrigo about measly $50 cons, Gaddis proceeds to do $100 cons, so it’s not really clear whether he’s a big- or small-time criminal.  Rodrigo, on the other hand, has no problem scamming innocent waitresses, but is hesitant to rip off old ladies or run away with a woman’s purse. These kinds of incongruities – which mount, at the end of the film – make the characters feel one-dimensional.

Although you will remember him from supporting roles in “Gangs of New York”, "Chicago" and “The Perfect Storm,” John C. Reilly takes the reins for his first starring role here.  He’s a fantastic actor who does a good job as Gaddis, but nevertheless seems a bit miscast as the hardened criminal who will con anyone.  Luna carries off his role convincingly, but doesn’t stand out.  It’s hard to look away from Gyllenhaal and Mullins, however, who are both mesmerizing onscreen and whose performances were flawless.

This film brings to mind David Mamet’s “House of Games,” which had a similar twisting plot and clipped, cynical characters.  But Mamet is an expert, and this can’t compare.  Although the ruse worked, the plot – rather than the characters – drives the film.  I also felt overwhelmed by the drab browns that dominate Chris Menge’s Los Angeles landscape, and the paltry scores only served to underscore the film’s blandness.  It was all a bit too “’70s caper heist” for me – definitely nothing new under this sun.

“Criminal” ends with the “really” bad guy getting his due, while the “less bad” thieves and cons come out on top.  It’s a familiar take on the “honor among thieves” cliché which feels satisfying at first, until you realize that the comeuppance only comes at the price of an even bigger con.  It’s a common Hollywood plot construction, but it drives home the point that immorality can only be fought by more immorality – a tragic myth that leaves us to our own human devices. 

Adult viewers may choose to use this opportunity to discuss what it means to “be as wise as serpents but as gentle as doves” when it comes to trusting strangers, how easy it is to be deceived, and the isolation that dishonesty inevitably brings.

OBJECTIONABLE CONTENT

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:   Characters drink and smoke cigarettes in bars/restaurants/casinos.
  • Language/Profanity:  At least five dozen f—words, plus another 18 or so mild obscenities and profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Characters talk about f-ing in several scenes; character says he “can’t be without a girl;” rear view of men (fully dressed) urinating; reference to someone looking like a “raped virgin.”
  • Violence:   Characters wave guns around, yell and threaten violence; reference to the Russian mafia who will kill someone who doesn’t pay his debt; pushing and shoving.