" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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How many problems are there with Criminal? There are too many to count. Let’s start with the title. It’s vanilla and unremarkable, an immediate indication of how little imagination Hollywood’s big guns have brought to the table.

One Monroe

Shorter doesn't mean brisker in this remake of Nine Queens
Shorter doesn’t mean brisker in this remake of Nine Queens

Another problem with Criminal is that it has taken its source material, the marvelous Neuve Reinas (Nine Queens) from Argentina, and turned it into something less than a frame-by-frame remake.

It’s a tricky thing to translate foreign films into American sensibilities (or the lack thereof). Sometimes they fail miserably, as with John Badham’s Point of No Return, a stillborn adaptation of La Femme Nikita. But there are instances of smashing success, such as Cameron Crowe’s super-sized Vanilla Sky, which smartly amped up the star power and provided a nifty final twist to Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).

Here, Criminal trades in the forged postage stamps of Nine Queens for an ultra-rare Monroe silver certificate. Aside from that, the storyline is the same: Two desperate bamboozlers fall into the con of their lives, a swindle that could propel the both of them out of their financial misery.

In adapting Nine Queens, however, producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, collaborators on Out of Sight and several other projects, have gutted their inspiration. A small part of the problem is they handed off directorial duties to first-timer Gregory Jacobs, who has religiously served as assistant director to Soderbergh in the past.

Jacobs’ version is nearly a half-hour shorter than the original. But, instead of being a brisk, fast-paced game, Criminal, having lost much of the character and humor that so thoroughly fleshed out Nine Queens, drags its butt along the sidewalks of Los Angeles in a half-hearted and half-baked adaptation.

Ocean’s Two

The characters themselves are out of whack. John C. Reilly (Chicago) as Richard Gaddis, the “senior” conman, is too unsympathetic. In Nine Queens, there was enough time to develop the characters and their growing interdependency before they got ensconced in the big game, and that earned them some degree of sympathy, their conniving side notwithstanding.

Criminal not-so-smartly cuts to the chase and, as a result, Richard comes across as a one-dimensional, insufferable ass. And it’s also hard to be sympathetic for a guy who drives a Mercedes and is perpetually yapping, like a pretentious yuppie, on his cell phone.

In the Argentine film, cell phones are themselves merely a gag in one of the scams. Let’s not forget the dynamic duo of hornswoggling are desperate; they are pedestrians, bound to hoofing it from one location to the next. Lack of transportation and communication devices are part of their challenged world, a world full of colorful characters, scammers, players, and dirty dealers.

Also a problem on the casting front is Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary). She may be the darling of independent movies, but she’s miscast here as Valerie, Richard’s sister. Gyllenhaal lacks the smoldering sex appeal and edgy backbone Leticia Bredice brought to the original.

On the other hand, the one bright spot, the only reason for this film’s existence, is Diego Luna’s (Y Tu Mama Tambien) wonderfully conflicted performance as Rodrigo, the younger rook.

The Mustard Chuckers

While Nine Queens had an ending that played off of uniquely Argentine concerns, Criminal makes no attempt to put an equivalent spin on the American condition. There’s also a subtle twist at the very end of Nine Queens, one last joke that adds insult to injury. It’s the kind of quick sight gag that, if you blink, you’ll miss it. If they did see the film, Soderbergh and Jacobs obviously blinked.

With all that said, there’s also an underlying annoyance in Criminal. It’s the perpetual reference to Richard’s former partner as a Jew. He repeatedly mentions it to the point it becomes grating, as if the film were stretching for some sort of gravitas via anti-Semitism.

Fabian Bielinsky, the mastermind behind the original, is no doubt glad he took the money and ran. His film is a testimonial to true independent filmmaking, a concept Jacobs tries to forge while Clooney and Soderbergh squander the opportunity to create a genuine Hollywood hoot.

Perhaps the cleverest part of this rehash is found in Criminal’s poster, which credits the screenplay to Gregory Jacobs and Sam Lowry (Steven Soderbergh’s alias, which also happens to be the name of the lead character in Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil). Whether that’s an obscure reference to the Argentina/Brazil soccer rivalry or some sort of covert admission his mind was kidnapped during this film’s production is debatable. Either way, skip the movie and look at the poster for free.

With so much of value at the ready in their source material, it’s as if Soderbergh, Clooney, and Jacobs went out of their way to stink up the joint. That is criminal.