Crooked as They Come

Criminal swipes its story from a far superior movie.

Movie remakes are a fact of life -- Hollywood is nothing if not timid, and never so enthusiastic in its timidity as when it thinks it's betting on a sure thing -- and some of them aren't too bad. The 1946 version of Great Expectations, for instance, is much better than the 1943, and it's easy to argue that William Friedkin's explosive road-thriller Sorcerer is the equal of its French model, The Wages of Fear. For the most part, though, remakes lack the substance that made the originals work, and the weakest remakes of all tend to be Hollywoodized versions of gems from other countries.

Case in point: Criminal. Written (in part) and directed by a former first assistant named Gregory Jacobs, this plodding mediocrity displays none of the flair or the compelling trickery that enlivened its 2002 prototype, a wicked little caper movie from Argentina called Nine Queens. In that one, first-time director Fabian Bielinsky combined the slippery relationship between a young, would-be con man and the old pro who becomes his mentor with a delicious scheme involving a rich stranger and a sheet of ultra-rare postage stamps, the Nine Queens, which may or may not be forgeries. As tense as it was amusing, Bielinsky's film put to shame Hollywood scam-fests like The Score and The Grifters -- not least because it was beautifully acted, impeccably paced, and spiced with deadpan humor.

Alas, imitation is sometimes not flattering at all. In Criminal, the story has been transplanted from seething, mysterious Buenos Aires to workaday Los Angeles, and that's just the beginning of its reductions in style, sense, and dramatic verve. For one thing, the leading man is so disastrously miscast as to be laughable. As the homely, jilted husband in Chicago or the crooked Irish cop in Gangs of New York, John C. Reilly was just fine: The shoe fit. As a supposedly sharp, well-traveled con man named Richard Gaddis, he doesn't come off at all. Oh, Richard is supposed to have a major chink in his armor, but for the most part we're asked to accept him as a cynical sociopath who delights in scamming restaurant waiters in Beverly Hills and bilking frail grandmothers in Westwood.

"They're marks," he scoffs. "Some of them are dumber than fucking pets." But almost nothing about Reilly supports that larcenous bravado -- not the round, hardware-salesman's face, not the slouchy posture, not his uncertainty of speech and gesture. This guy seems like he couldn't take a lollipop off a preschooler.

Still, Jacobs and Company must press on. Richard's young partner in crime in this version is a fresh-faced barrio kid named Rodrigo (Diego Luna, late of The Terminal and Y Tu Mamá También), who knows a few street tricks of his own and says he needs a big score to bail out his desperate father, who owes thousands to the Russian mob in gambling debts. Richard and Rodrigo (soon to be dubbed "Bryan") meet by chance in a casino, and in an instant the older thief has gotten the kid out of a jam and snowed him with his bluster. Richard needs a partner; his old one has fled. Then, like magic, a major heist opportunity falls into their laps. They'll take down a slick Irish zillionaire named Hannigan (Peter Mullan) because he has a weakness, not for rare stamps, but for rare American currency. Richard and Bryan plan to foist on the mark a counterfeit one-of-a-kind bill. All of this, as in the original, transpires in one day.

Jacobs, who gives co-writing credit to Bielinsky, means to sweeten the deal with compelling minor characters, including Richard's brooding sister, Valerie (indie-movie queen Maggie Gyllenhaal), and a canny old forger named Ochoa (Zitto Kazann). But they don't measure up any better to their Argentinean counterparts than do the principals. Despite a frantic pace and all the intimations of deceit and double-dealing one movie can possibly hold, Criminal comes off as a tedious, unconvincing phony -- you know, a counterfeit.

Want the real thing? Try to track down the surpassing Nine Queens at the video shop, because it's worth the search. As for Criminal, it instantly earns a place alongside Jim McBride's pointless American take on Godard's Breathless and the thoroughly unfrightening U.S. version of The Vanishing on Hollywood's long, long shelf of misguided remakes.