With the deft hands of a Manhattan street hustler orchestrating three-card monty, Steven Soderbergh and Gregory Jacobs’ “Criminal” offers an engaging glimpse into the life of two crooks trying to swindle a media magnate out of $750,000. A remake of the 2000 Argentinean feature “Nine Queens” the film mixes stylistic dialogue into a character study rich in multi-faceted characters, as well as offers twists and turns (some implausible, some slickly done). The script works in spades overall, bringing viewers an enjoyable look into this shadowy world and making it truly something that can be termed “con artistry,” with a final twist showing who is conning who.

Starring John C. Reilly, Diego Luna and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film doesn’t play with the original’s formula a great deal, there is no need to. Yes, the character names and setting have been altered, but the plot and structure is almost identical, save for one item: Whereas “Nine Queens” was about the pair of crooks trying to pass off a forged set of valuable stamps, the American version finds the men trying to swindle off a counterfeit copy of a rare piece of currency, the 1878 Monroe Silver Certificate.

The few who saw “Nine Queens” on American shores praised it wholeheartedly, with the Los Angeles Times saying it is “hard to watch “Nine Queens” without being reminded of the sly sleight-of-hand films David Mamet has made with his friend, master prestidigitator Ricky Jay.” Based on the Jacobs and Soderbergh script, this American translation is capable of mirroring that praise, which will hopefully drive viewers to the original work as well.

This script review includes major plot points to “Criminal.” Read at your own risk.

The Story

The film opens in a parking lot, where viewers meet 23-year-old Rodrigo, a small-time crook. Entering into a casino with a confident stride, the script notes that “he seems normal, perhaps even innocent. Certainly not threatening.” He is there to bilk an employee out of $50 through a well-known con trick. Ordering a $3.50 Coke, he gives his waitress a fifty-dollar bill, then claims to have found exact change in his pocket. He gives her back the change, then offers to give her $50 more for a $100 bill, while already having the original $50 back in his pocket. For those confused by this, he is essentially giving her the original $50 she had had and ups it by giving his initial $50 bill to double his take. Deciding to trust his “altar boy face,” she gives him a $100 bill. He’s made $50 (minus the money spent for the Coke). Certainly better than playing the lottery.

This scam complete, he moves to another table as the camera focuses in on another face in the casino, that of Richard Gaddis. The script details his eyes, which are “quick and intelligent,” and he is wearing a suit and tie, out of place for this low-class joint. As the scriptwriters indicate, “You might look at him twice…you’d say he was a businessman if he weren’t here. Or a cop.” We soon learn he’s a veteran crook himself, sizing up Rodrigo from across the room.

While Rodrigo attempts to turn the same trick with another waitress, she becomes suspicious and starts a commotion. Presenting himself as a policeman, Richard intervenes and begins to question Rodrigo. After asking the second waitress to bring the first into the discussion, Rodrigo attempts to flee. In one swift motion, Richard grabs Rodrigo and, after placing handcuffs on him, drags him out of the casino.

Once out of the fray, Richard tells him he has a proposition for him: Become his partner and learn the advanced tools of the trade.

As he tells Rodrigo, “You have the one quality that money and practice can’t buy. You look like a nice guy…I can’t do what I need to do alone. Okay? You can only go so far by yourself. You can survive, keep things going. But if you want a little more than that, you have to work with people. Now, I’m not a big believer in friends, I’ll tell you that right off the bat. This is work. If I ask you something personal, it’s because the more I know about you, the more I can develop your role in the frame.” An uneasy partnership is born, with both watching out for their own personal interests, and the two quickly pull off three minor heists together that show off their respective strengths in graft.

After questioning Richard on the morals of what they have done – this time stealing the purse of a woman when they find themselves “stuck” on an elevator together – Rodrigo is brought to Venice Beach to be shown true criminals. It’s perhaps one of the best sequences from the script, literally taken word-for-word, shot-by-shot from the original film.

Richard, motioning to two men on a motorcycle cruising: ”Look at those two. Looking for your briefcase, purse. And that one…”

Motioning to a man who looks like a rat talking into a cellphone while keeping an eye on the people who pass by: “Sizing you up, giving you a number. If you’re a mark, they’re invisible, they’re like statistics.”

As a long-haired man signals another, who moves into action: “Until you get taken.” The camera then pans to a street vendor’s booth, where a woman slides a couple of watches into her person and across the street, a businessman checks for the wallet that is no longer there.

Back to Richard, “So watch your briefcase, your bag, your door, your window, your car, your savings. Assume the worst….I’m hungry. Let’s go to my office.”

His “office” turns out to be a diner, with the manager there relaying messages to him much in the same way the principal character in George V. Higgins’ novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” receives his marching orders.

But Richard is not an arms dealer, but a criminal. Having educated the viewer on the basics, the film moves on to its central plot. His sister Valerie calls him there at the diner, reluctantly relaying that an ill associate is looking to get in contact with him immediately. Describing his sister as being like “standing in the exhaust of a jet engine,” the pair head over to the hotel she works at. She brings them to an older con artist, named Ochoa, who they find laid out on a locker room bench. Ochoa was looking to pull a deal selling a counterfeit Monroe Silver Certificate, of which only three sets were ever issued, to a wealthy media mogul named Brian Hannigan. As a character later states, it’s be the most valuable piece of currency in the United States. Ochoa copied it in painstaking detail over the course of a year, based on photos given to him by his son-in-law, who works at the Treasury Department.

Extracting a deal that gives himself and Rodrigo 90% of the profit from the sale, they learn they have an extremely tight window to pull the deal off. A resident of Monaco, Hannigan is only able to stay in the country for one more day before he would be liable for tax on his worldwide holdings, which would total tens of millions of dollars. They gain Hannigan’s interest through a ruse and, after getting the counterfeit certificates from Ochoa’;s wife thanks to Rodrigo’s efforts, settle for selling the counterfeit for $750,000. Along the way, they need to slice make deals with several people: Hannigan’s authenticator, who realizes it’s a fake upon viewing it; Ochoa himself, who gives them a second set of the counterfeit certificates when Rodrigo and Richard have the originals stolen; and Valerie, whom Richard has to settle an old score with when he needs her help later on. Hannigan won’t do the deal unless he gains the “companionship” of Valerie, who he has long had his eye on.

From there on, it’s the endgame. Is the deal made? (Yes.) Does Valerie sleep with Hannigan and fulfill her part of the bargain? (Yes.) Does one of the con men get the best of the other. (Oh yes, and how.) The ultimate trick ending, which I need to be extremely vague about so as to not to spoil it, is probably the best in cinema I’ve seen since “The Usual Suspects.” For those who have not seen the original film, you’ll find more clues upon a second viewing— something that was missing from the first effort.

My Thoughts

“Criminal” follows a number of recent foreign films that have been quickly remade into American vehicles, including “Vanilla Sky” (formerly Abre los Ojos”), “Insomnia” and “The Ring”; On the horizon loom American-as-Apple-Pie replicas of “Klatretosen” (retitled “Mission Without Permission”) and “The Eye,” among others. Speaking on the broader trend of remakes (i.e. 1969’s “The Italian Job” vs. 2003’s “The Italian Job”), Michael Booth of the Denver Post writes that “[t]here are only so many stories out there. Love, betrayal, isolation, pursuit, fear, death. That about covers it. The New Testament is a remake, for crying out loud. They took the dark, righteous anger of the original’s lead character and made Him over as a forgiving philosopher with a bad-boy beard and some cutting edge special effects. A few people liked the new version.”

Seeing the cast shape up as it is, I’m willing to give the edge here to “Criminal,” although the original does end up as one of my more favored films. While it’s a shame that a translation is needed, the talent both behind and front of the camera make this a worthy viewing.

What I like about the film is its characterization of Richard. Although he exerts a calm confidence at each turn, even when they are robbed, he is a shell of a man. He is willing to sell out his sister and brother over his mother’s estate, he essentially lives in a car and has business acquaintances rather than friends. Reilly has a great role for himself that not only allows him to showcase his skills as an actor that has only been revealed heretofore in secondary lead parts. No matter the state of his character at the end of the film, the roles offered to the actor will be a significant step up for him.

This script is pitch-perfect in its “con artistry,” with only the theft of the original counterfeit certificates seeming contrived. Jacobs and Soderbergh have found themselves a great source material and it’s now up to Jacobs, as director, to execute this clever caper script from behind the camera. This script, listed as the “white draft” is dated March 19th, 2003. Screenwriting credits are given to Gregory Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh, based on the screenplay of Fabian Bielinsky. Principal photography on the film is to start this month.

Rating: B+