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MOVIE REVIEW

Taut twists drive action in 'Criminal'

In "Criminal," the actor John C. Reilly sheds a career playing dupes and schlubs and gives his first full-tilt electric performance, playing an unscrupulous Los Angeles con man. Reilly is tall and tubby, with an attraction to parts that show off his skills as a hearty, hapless whiner. In "The Good Girl," "The Hours," and "Chicago," he was married to women who didn't love him, and the pairings gave him the aura of a sad clown with runny makeup.

So seeing Reilly connive and fib to such great, ferocious heights as Richard Gaddis in "Criminal" is a revelation. He uses the fury he brought to his small role in "Gangs of New York" to make a three-dimensional menace out of a part that requires him to be seductive and scurrilous. This is the first picture he's carried, and he very wisely avoids drumming up sympathy for Richard. You're not rooting for the character; you're rooting for the performance.

The movie's not bad either. It's a reasonably faithful remake of the four-year-old Argentine flick "Nine Queens," Fabian Bielinsky's nicely crafted caper which had a rigorous and captivating amorality. Gregory Jacobs directs this American version, which he wrote with Steven Soderbergh (using the pseudonym Sam Lowry), and his movie is just as exciting and socially vivid as Bielinsky's. Yet, somehow it's more stressful. The American characters practically sweat desperation.

"Criminal" gets underway when Richard pretends to arrest Rodrigo (Diego Luna), a young Mexican grifter who's scamming waitresses in a little casino. Rodrigo needs to raise $70,000 to bail his father out of some life-threatening gambling debt. Richard is impressed enough to hang out with Rodrigo and pull a string of small-time scams around town -- pretending to be a relative of a nice old lady for $200, causing a scene at a restaurant for $100 more. Though, making Rodrigo change his name to Brian, in a bid to "Anglo you up a little," seems like a bigger scam.

These are icebreakers, for them and for us. Scruffy, soft-spoken, charismatic Rodrigo doesn't like making scenes, where Richard prefers them. The kid is decent where Richard, dressed cleanly in a bright suit, only seems decent. "You have the only thing money and practice can't buy," he tells Rodrigo. "You look like a nice guy." Richard, meanwhile, lives in a universe of unreturned phone calls and corroded relationships, none more damaged than the one with his sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a concierge at the palatial art-deco Biltmore hotel.

There's some unfinished business between them and their young brother (Jonathan Tucker) over their dead mother's estate. And Valerie's state of perpetual outrage with Richard heats up whenever he and Rodrigo appear at her job, looking to conduct the sale of some extinct antique American currency that could fetch a huge payday from a scarily virile Scotsman (Peter Mullan). This job drives the rest of "Criminal," as a gallery of colorful folks, played by resourceful actors such as Enrico Colantoni and Zitto Kazann, make surprising but not illegitimate claims for a percentage of Richard's take.

There are cons inside cons inside yet more scams. Jacobs conducts these twists with taut and suspenseful skill. You could mistake him for a guy who worked in a corkscrew factory -- everybody's that crooked. The movie also has an easygoing sociological curiosity about strangers' kindness and people's sudden opportunistic urges. (The movie's cast of eccentrics and its neo- noir tone go well with Soderbergh's other LA crime yarns, "The Underneath" and "Out of Sight.")

The last trapdoor of a scene makes you reconsider exactly what force has been holding the film's intensity together. It's the people. The plot doesn't move unless the people do, namely Valerie. Without her participation in the eleventh hour, Richard's plan doesn't work. Jacobs is also very attuned to the movie's emotional life. There's incredible tension between Richard and Gyllenhaal's sexy, unsmiling Valerie. And it's not crazy to imagine that Luna and Reilly are engaged in a sort of platonic first date: When will Rodrigo start trusting Richard? Should he ever?

Richard epitomizes the low art of the con. And he pities the people who fall for him. We never trust him though, so every time he enters a room we can feel the truth wilt a little. The film's title sounds like a judgment, but Reilly plays it like a divine calling.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

Criminal
***

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