2004-10-15 / Columnists

‘Criminal’ – Stinging The Stinger

When “The Sting” opened in 1973, it was considered the greatest con film ever made. Much of its appeal was due to the charisma of its star scammers, Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Since then, similar genre movies have come and gone, the most recent of which is “Criminal,” a first-time starring vehicle for all-purpose character actor, John C. Reilly (“Chicago,” “Magnolia”). Produced by Steven Soderberg and George Clooney, “Criminal” is far better than “Confidence,” but not at the same gaming table as “The Sting.” In fact, the Las Vegas “counting cards” sequence in “Rain Man” surpasses “Criminal” for sheer entertainment value.

Much of the fault for “Criminal” lies with Reilly who, as LA grifter Richard Gaddis, succeeds at sliminess, but loses as a leading man. While extreme close-ups of his beaten-up boxer face are not as easy on the eye as those of Redford and Newman, Reilly portrays an ugliness that’s more than skin deep. We find ourselves searching in vain for something redeeming about his character. It’s a solid performance of an unlikable guy.

On the other hand, his young protégé, Rodrigo (Diego Luna), has charisma to spare and effortlessly steals the movie. Posing as a policeman, Gaddis spots him shortchanging waitresses at a casino. The older con pretends to arrest the youth, then reveals his identity and asks him to become his sidekick.

Directed and co-written by Soderbergh sidekick Gregory Jacobs, “Criminal” moves through a few mean moments scamming an old lady and a cell-phone-talking motorist before settling into a major con involving a counterfeit version of a priceless 1878 Monroe Silver Certificate. As in “The Sting,” the man being fooled is an Irish multimillionaire, in this case, Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul William Hannigan (Peter Mullan). Gaddis’ connection to the patsy is his sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the concierge at a plush hotel. To further complicate matters, Gaddis is in the midst of a legal entanglement with Maggie over their deceased mother’s trust fund.

With suspense revolving around who will out double-cross whom, the final twist will be a surprise to most audience members. It’s believable, but barely.

Fans of Reilly should check him out in his debut as a leading man. However, the star with the most sting is Luna.

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