House of cards

Y Tu Mamá También co-star Diego Luna and the amicable John C. Reilly take center stage as con men in Criminal, a remake of the hit Argentinian film Nine Queens.

The double-dealing plot of 'Criminal' may be shaky, but the acting is solid

I don't know about you, but I like John C. Reilly. I see his lonely, sweetly bumbling cop in Magnolia; his lonely, abandoned husband in Chicago; his lonely, endearingly clueless porn denizen in Boogie Nights - you get the idea, right? - and I want to invite him over for a home-cooked meal and maybe set him up with one of my more gentle female friends. A gal who knows a fella ain't necessarily a brute just 'cuz he has a mug like a played-out boxer.

That would be a mistake in the world of Criminal, where Reilly, so often consigned to shine in supporting roles or ensemble casts, is undeniably the star of the show. His character, Richard Gaddis, may project some of the same vibes as other Reilly characters, but he is wholly amoral, crooked in a likably straight way: He'll explain to you why he ripped off Mr. A and Mrs. B in the same breath that he asks you to trust him to give you your cut of the money later on tonight, after he has had a chance to get stuff in order.

Reilly is the film's main attraction, but the guy wondering if he's going to get stiffed carries his weight as well. Y Tu Mamá También co-star Diego Luna is a goodhearted grifter who has something that, according to Gaddis, "money and practice can't buy: You look like a nice guy." All the better to pull fast-change scams on cocktail waitresses. The elder man takes the younger under his wing for a little Scamming 101, only to be thrust into a situation where he needs an experienced partner asap. The kid will have to do.

Dir. Gregory Jacobs; writ. Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens), Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh (as Sam Lowry) ; feat. John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Mullan, Zitto Kazann (R)
Criminal is a remake of the celebrated Argentinian film Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), and the requisite twists and turns of its doublecrossing plot stick pretty closely to those of the original film. The new partners come across an opportunity to sell a counterfeit of "the most valuable piece of currency ever produced by the United States government" to an insanely wealthy media mogul who's only in town for one day. The transaction is complicated by Gaddis' sister (Gyllenhaal), who works in the hotel where said mogul is staying, and whose feud with her brother bubbles up in ugly confrontations while Richard is trying to keep his cover cool.

First-time director Gregory Jacobs - an integral part of Steven Soderbergh's production team during recent years, which is why Soderbergh and George Clooney are co-producers - handles the action well and delivers a nice sprawling Los Angeles feel to boot. The film's most nagging flaw is inherited from the source material, and is the curse of many con movies: In order for things to work out the way the con men need them to, the mark is required to make some fairly unlikely decisions on his own. Criminal's plot is a house of cards in which the ground level is balanced on toothpicks, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable to watch. •

By John DeFore

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