The story, which takes place over a span of 24 hours, begins in a casino, where we see baby-faced Rodrigo (Diego Luna) attempting to pull a two-bit money-changing scam on a beleaguered waitress. When she gets wise to him and starts screaming bloody murder, a police detective who happens to be nearby intervenes and roughly pulls Rodrigo out of the place.
Of course, the cop is no cop, he's Richard (John C. Reilly), a con artist himself who sees in the amateurish but good-looking Rodrigo the makings of a new partner. The two set off on a spree of low-level cons, with Richard making full use of Rodrigo's innocent demeanor to snare the unwitting marks, even an elderly woman who thinks she's giving her money to her grandson's friend.
It doesn't take long for the new partners to tumble into a possibly highly lucrative scam involving a forged rare-currency certificate to be sold to a rapacious Scottish businessman (Peter Mullan) who's due to leave town the next day. As the pair get involved in a series of complex interactions to further their scheme, they also must cope with the family dispute between Richard and his beautiful but estranged sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She hates him, quite reasonably, because he tried to screw her and her younger brother out of the family inheritance.
As with every con artist flick, Criminal displays the sort of complex plotting in which the details of the sting as well as the true nature of the participants are never quite what they seem. Depending on the execution, this can be great fun or highly annoying, but the middling Criminal winds up somewhere in between.
First-time director Gregory Jacobs, working from a screenplay he co-authored with Sam Lowry, takes a gritty, low-key approach to the material, concentrating as much on characterization and social and ethnic issues in contemporary Los Angeles as on the details of the con. The result is a more realistic example of the genre than usual, but such subplots as the interpersonal conflict between Richard and his sister don't have the intended impact, and the film never achieves the giddy heights of the best of its predecessors.
Reilly, in a rare leading turn, delivers his usual expertly modulated performance, and his unconventional looks make Richard's need for an appealing partner all the more believable. Luna certainly fits the bill, infusing Rodrigo with an appropriate puppy-dog quality. Although Gyllenhaal never seems entirely convincing conveying the sister's aggressive edge, she ultimately acquits herself, and Mullan, much like Robert Shaw in The Sting, uses his steely charisma to excellent effect as the intended mark.
A Warner Independent Pictures presentation in association with 2929 Entertainment
A Section Eight production
Director: Gregory Jacobs
Screenwriters: Gregory Jacobs, Sam Lowry
Producers: Gregory Jacobs, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh
Executive producers: Jennifer Fox, Ben Cosgrove, Georgia Kacandes, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production design: Philip Messina
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Costume design: Jeffrey Kurland
Music: Alex Wurman
Richard Gaddis: John C. Reilly
Rodrigo: Diego Luna
Valerie: Maggie Gyllenhaal
William Hannigan: Peter Mullan
Ochoa: Zitto Kazann
Michael: Jonathan Tucker
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 87 minutes