Early on in Gregory Jacobs's Criminal, John C. Reilly's professional sizes up Diego Luna's neophyte: "We gotta Anglo you up a little." This, of course, is the approach of Criminal to its source material: the Argentinian light thriller Nine Queens. Nine Queens was an effective pastiche of David Mamet's twisty, macho con-men yarns, but translating Mamet back into English, so to speak, is a bit of an odd proposition, especially since viewers of the first film already know the story's twists.
The upside to Criminal's fidelity to Nine Queens is that, for the uninitiated, the story works just as well in its American incarnation. Feeding off of Stephen Soderbergh's proclivity for remakes, Criminal is co-produced by Soderbergh and George Clooney, edited by Soderbergh's Oscar-winning cutter Stephen Mirrione (Traffic), and shot in Soderbergh's favored cinematographic style (loose and limber) by Academy Award-winning Chris Menges (The Mission). The principal location of the Biltmore Hotel suits the story perfectly, as do the urban, if not always urbane, costumes by Jeffrey Kurland (Collateral).
John C. Reilly plays Richard Gaddis, a career con artist who sees—in the sloppy swindling of a young man named Rodrigo (Diego Luna of Y tu Mamá También)—a potential for something more. Saving Rodrigo from probable arrest, Gaddis sizes up his scrawny disciple and offers to take him on as a partner, if only temporarily: "You have one thing money and practice can't buy. You look like a nice guy." While teaching Rodrigo the ropes (and after renaming him Brian), Gaddis stumbles onto a job that's too good to be true: pawning off a forged 1878 Monroe Silver Certificate to Irish multi-millionaire William Hannigan (Peter Mullan) for a cool half mil (the bill replaces Nine Queens's rare stamps—the changes between films are only this cosmetic). Hannigan's staying at the hotel where Gaddis's estranged sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) works as concierge, but Gaddis will do anything for that money, a dangerous attitude for a man in his line of work and anyone in his wake.
Reilly's doughy face works against the picture at first. We're so used to the actor as feckless, pitiable losers that he seems a bad choice to toss off the sharkiest of Mamet-isms (about someone named "the Jew," for instance). But Reilly has also played his share of jerks, and as his character grows more intense, so does his performance; besides, Gaddis's aggressiveness masks an inner loser who doubts himself at every turn. Luna's wariness and easy charm compliment Reilly's bombast, and Gyllenhaal—drawn despairingly into her brother's plans—convincingly radiates hurt and hopelessness. Of course, this is a con movie, so not all is as it seems; by the end, those who haven't seen Nine Queens may applaud the entertaining sleight-of-hand while those who have may lament that Criminal is the proverbial old dog.