Criminal and Nicotina (review)

Art of the Con

Now, I’m the first film fan to profess a disdain for foreign films revisited by American filmmakers — there’s usually little point in doing so rather than giving those foreign films a wider domestic release, beyond the sad fact that most mainstream American moviegoers simply don’t want to read subtitles. But damn if Criminal doesn’t actually improve upon The Nine Queens, the Argentine film upon which it is very closely based. That’s not to say that The Nine Queens isn’t a fine film in its own right — it’s just that Criminal, through a shift in locale and a new cast, ends up deepening some of the subtleties and themes The Nine Queens touched on, making this revised tale even more delicious than the original.
You don’t need to have seen The Nine Queens to appreciate Criminal — much better if you haven’t, actually. For this is yet another story about con artists that is all about conning the audience. All movies are cons, to a certain degree, that we as viewers willingly let ourselves be tricked by: we know these are actors pretending to live out events that are not real. Movies about “the big con” are another step up the sneakiness scale: We know we’re being scammed. We know that we don’t have all the information we need to really know what’s going on. We just don’t know how much information we’re missing. I, for one, love having my intellect and my imagination scammed like that, love trying to outcon these movies, and love even more when I can’t.

I was, delightfully, thoroughly outconned by Criminal, and the only thing that could make the experience of the film even better would be if I could watch it again with no knowledge of how it ends.

“You have one thing money and practice can’t buy,” veteran grifter Richard tells his newly acquired young protege, Rodrigo. “You look like a nice guy.” They skim around Los Angeles over the course of a single day, having just crossed paths that morning, and from the moment they meet they’re pulling little cons here and there in the instant if uneasy camaraderie of criminals. Richard shows Rodrigo a few tricks, and, perhaps unexpectedly, Rodrigo has a few gems of felonious wisdom to impart to Richard, too. Before long, of course, they’ve stumbled into one of those one-in-a-million, once-in-a-lifetime, only-in-a-con-movie jobs, and though you’ve known this moment was coming, you begin to fear for Rodrigo. For as Richard, John C. Reilly (The Hours, Chicago), in a performance that deserves to make him a star, sweats a slick desperation (which his Argentine counterpart, actor Ricardo Darín, couldn’t quite pull off), despite his sharp suit and luxury wheels. And Diego Luna (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Open Range), as Rodrigo, in just the latest of his quietly ingratiating turns, exudes an eager-puppy excitement for the work (far more effectively than his Argentine counterpart, actor Gastón Pauls, did) that, we are sure, is absolutely going to get him into trouble. Richard is hurting for dough, and we can feel it… and even if he weren’t, he’s exactly the type to screw a partner just for the thrill of it. Rodrigo needs cash fast, too, to help dig his father out from under a mob debt, and, well, Rodrigo really does look like a genuinely nice guy who doesn’t really have the sharkiness necessary for this work. Throw in the vast divide between wealthy and poor we see as they shuttle between Beverly Hills and East L.A. — a motif that is all but absent from The Nine Queens — and the differences in what money means to rich and poor… and oh, someone is being taken for a ride.

It’s us, of course. Director Gregory Jacobs — a longtime assistant director for Steven Soderbergh and making his feature debut (he also adapted the Nine Queens screenplay) — knows how to keep us guessing and knows exactly how we’re trying to outsmart him and his wonderful scam of a movie. He just lets his terrific cast — which also includes Maggie Gyllenhaal (Mona Lisa Smile) as Richard’s sister (or is she?) and Peter Mullan (Young Adam) as a wealthy dupe targeted by Richard and Rodrigo — act as their own diversions, misleading us exactly where we want to be mislead, even if we don’t realize it until the end.

Cockroaches and cigarettes
Are Diego Luna fans called Lunatics? Cuz I’m loving what this guy is doing onscreen. In Nicotina, a Mexican import, Luna plays a geeky-sweet computer hacker who, if you looked at him with an unbiased eye, is really kinda creepy: he spies on and stalks his pretty neighbor. But the fresh, gentle charisma Luna can’t seem to help but emit makes him far more sympathetic than he deserves to be.

And he needs it. Director Hugo Rodríguez and writer Martín Salinas have whipped up a loud, engagingly frenetic black comedy for Luna’s Lolo. He’s gotten himself mixed up with Russian mobsters in the search for a quick buck, and now, over the course of one night full of gunshots, gut wounds, stolen Swiss bank account numbers, Sweeney-Todd barbers, and cockroaches in the wrong place at the wrong time, Lolo will learn get a smack-in-the-face warning about the seductive addictions from cigarettes to greed and voyeurism… any short cut to the good life.

Rodríguez claims inspiration from the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, and this snarky flick, a critical and audience favorite south of the border, sits alongside their work quite well, finding suspense and surprising humor in the violent lengths to which people will go to get what they want, and in how we all engineer our own downfalls. Even when we’re seemingly as charmed as Luna’s Lolo.

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language
official site | IMDB

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for violence and language
official site | IMDB

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