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In retrospect, telling the dealer to "go fish" was probably not the smartest idea.


Criminal
(R, 85 min.)
Selected theaters

Thursday, September 09, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Criminal

Honor among thieves: Two fascinating main characters save Criminal from being a mere misdemeanor

By Anthony Del Valle

Criminal has a plot, sure, and a pretty good one, but what makes co-writer and first-time director Gregory Jacobs' crime caper feel so alive is the relationship between its two main characters.

Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly) is a middle-aged, streetwise Los Angeles con artist with the heart of a lion. Rodrigo (Diego Luna) is a clumsy, naive petty young Mexican crook who's taken to crime only to help his father, who is in physical danger due to gambling debts. The older man observes Rodrigo trying, unsuccessfully, to scam a cocktail waitress, and when the kid's about to be taken into custody by security, Richard poses as a cop and leads him away in handcuffs. Turns out the "cop" is searching for a new partner in crime. Rodrigo is broke and inexperienced, but Richard admits, "You have one thing that money and practice can't buy: You look like a nice guy."

It's not an easy marriage. When Richard initiates his partner by scamming a kind old lady, Rodrigo is horrified, while Richard is ecstatic that they got more money than they were hoping for. When Rodrigo tells Richard about his concern for his father, Richard responds, "Personally, I don't get this whole family circle thing." When we meet Richard's sister, hotel concierge Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhall), we find out why. These two are so single-minded in their ambitions and mutual hate that Richard has little trouble turning over his sister to a horny client as part of a deal; and Valerie has no trouble accepting, on the condition that she gets a healthy cut of Richard's take.

Jacobs and Sam Lowry's screenplay (based on Fabian Bielinsky's 2000 Argentine film Nueve Reinas) is dangerous material for a director. It needs just the right tone--a firm sense of hard-nosed realism tinged with slight, comic exaggeration. It'd be very easy to make this material stupid or sentimental. Jacobs doesn't soften the story. This Richard is an unredeemable son of a bitch. We can't even like him for taking an interest in the impressionable Rodrigo, because the kid is merely a means to an end. The man seems to have long ago had his human parts cut out. And we can't take comfort in watching Rodrigo learn from his mentor, because what he's being taught is so much less than what Rodrigo already is.

The dialogue is rich in surprises, yet almost always rooted in reality. You don't feel manipulated by cleverness. (The exception is the ending, which doesn't ring true, and nearly ruins the film.) Much of the credit, though, undoubtedly rests with the two main performers.

Reilly is perhaps the most amazing fusion of boy and man we have in American movies. When he's soft and pouting, you want to let him have his toy so he can go home happy. Yet, when he's evil, you know you better not fuck with that physique or that psyche. He's a lunatic who seems to have stepped out of "The Andy Griffith Show."

We know from Y Tu Mama Tambien how boyish Luna's spirit can be, but his performance here is multilayered. He shows us how his character is changed by the influence of this crook, and the changes come in gradations. We never lose Rodrigo's logic (except, again, in that damn ending, which makes us question everything prior in Luna's performance). Cinematographer Chris Menges gives the film a gritty style, yet manages to exploit a lot of the beauty of the streets of Los Angeles.

Criminal doesn't quite add up to a great film. It doesn't have the enormity of scope or observation for that. But it's an extremely well-made little one. Its rarity is in its ability to combine edge-of-the-seat plot twists with fascinating glimpses of human behavior.


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