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Dirty rotten scoundrels

Criminal is a thoroughly entertaining movie about two small-time confidence men, one seemingly more experienced than the other, who join forces to pull off a lucrative scam that has unexpected consequences. A remake of Argentinean director Fabián Bielinsky's film Nueve Reinas ("Nine Queens"), this version by Gregory Jacobs, longtime assistant director to Steven Soderbergh, takes place in Los Angeles over the course of one day. Everyman actor John C. Reilly plays Richard, an unsympathetic grifter who spies opportunities everywhere, whether from gullible old ladies or eager-to-please restaurants.

One day he spies an engaging young man, Rodrigo (Diego Luna), swindling pocket change from cocktail waitresses. Posing as an undercover cop, Richard arrests him on the spot but later reveals his real purpose: to teach Rodrigo what he knows so he can become his new partner. As they get to know each other, mutual distrust yields to a veneer of friendship, although mistrust is never completely absent.

Criminal is a fast-paced, fast-talking performance piece that skirts issues of race and class, not to mention honesty and integrity, in interesting and humorous ways. Richard is a greedy bastard who thinks Rodrigo would arouse less suspicion if he went by "Brian" instead; Rodrigo shows Richard how having street smarts means speaking Spanish when necessary. A foolproof opportunity arises when Richard's shrewd sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) calls to complain that some old man who knows him is causing a scene at the posh hotel where she works. Richard investigates and discovers that the man is trying to sell a forgery of some extremely rare money to an Irish multimillionaire, who will be out of the country before he detects the ruse. Richard agrees to help sell it for an unconscionably high percentage of the take. Rodrigo gets a cut as well.

As the plot thickens, additional shady characters come into the picture, each demanding additional percentages, and further complications force Richard to drag Valerie into the middle of things, only to reveal his unseemly (yet nonviolent) nature more and more. Meanness is the ultimate name of the game, of course, but it's not played strictly for laughs, despite the turnabout ending. Richard's inner desperation feeds his inability to act honestly even for a moment, which makes him an intriguing study indeed.

Stars: 4 out of 5