Theft and con movies have always been a prolific genre, but lately little separates them. Flashy posing is the latest trend, with movies like Snatch
and Ocean’s 11
featuring characters (or actors) who are far more interested in how cool they look than how clever their movie is. Problem is these movies are not drawing an audience that wants to see slick gangsters doing their thang, the draw of con movies is the con. Introductions to the characters are suppose to be kept to a minimum, the M.O. is springing surprise after surprise as the movie clips along always keeping the audience in the dark about who is doing what to whom and why but feeding them just enough information for them to keep track of the upkeep. David Mamet seems to be one of the few American directors these days who knows where the heart of the con movie lies, and Fabian Bielinsky’s new Argentinean film Nine Queens
definitely strives to fall into the category of a real crime film in the vein of Mamet.
Little is known about either of the main characters in Nine Queens
, the film starts with Marcos bailing Juan out of a failed minor con, and Marcos (played by Ricardo Darin as dark and sly, obviously smart but with a sleaziness that hints at a lesser intelligence behind his act) invites Juan (Gaston Pauls, who is handsome and soft, handy in the con game, but has too much of a conscience to really stomach his trade) into helping him scam some money for just a day to see if they could work together as partners. As they mess around a little background information is supplied on each character, of course after so many con movies one must wary of all that’s said and take it for a grain of salt, but suffice to say that Juan needs money fast and Marcos cannot seem to hold on to any of the dough he scams. Eventually the two stumble across a deal to sell a counterfeit copy of a very valuable set of old Weimar Republic stamps to a businessman (the nine queens of the title), but not everyone is being entirely truthful, and whether or not Juan and Marcos completes the deal takes backseat to who and what is really working behind the scenes.
takes the Mamet route of being both visually subdued and action dry, and it has to rely on its leads and their cons to keep the film moving. Mr. Bielinsky (who wrote the script) picked a smart pair of con artists as his leads, Darin and Pauls not only look and talk like men in the same game who each handle it their own way, but Bielinsky takes time to show how each man deals with the same situation differently. This gives a nice window into the true souls of these men, who’s talk and actions are usually just covering hidden motives, and Mr. Darin and Mr. Pauls make each character just barely likeable enough to not distrust them, but just barely despicable to know that they are each hiding their own problems. Their con builds up naturally, as the small thefts Juan and Marcos partake in slowly illustrated how under the surface both men are desperate for money and how they are almost forced to cooperate to get it.
It is when the big con is introduced that the movie stumbles. Situations and meetings start becoming too contrived and too coincidental to take seriously. This leads to the prevailing feeling that there is a massive con running in motion behind the whole operation, and soon the movie unintentionally switches gears from being about how Juan and Marcos are going to pull this off to which man is the one conning the other. Mr. Bielinsky certainly gives no helping clues, and as the stakes keep rising so does the desire to find out the big picture, if only to see the reactions of the sucker, for it becomes quite clear that something is amiss but Bielinsky does not let the audience in on any part of the puzzle. The payoff is not even a payoff, there is no big explanation that has to be worked backwards to make sense, the movie dead ends into the realization that one of the two was behind it all and the other got screwed. Despite the original setup (I mean, who steals stamps these days?), Mr. Bielinsky has somehow avoided anything that could remotely resemble cleverness in the payoff of Nine Queens
, and not only does one not get to see the conned man’s bewildered frustration at being so utterly beaten, the sucker never actually realizes he was being conned!
Last year’s David Mamet’s witty Heist
survived not only because of its considerable acting talent but because its cleverness was spread evenly through the movie, and as one con ends with satisfaction another one starts right up again and keeps the characters flowing in a metaphorical river of deception (and of course it has more golden one liners than all the movies of 2001 combined). Nine Queens
takes its clue from Mamet’s previous heister House of Games
and tries to build to that one big one, that one con that takes the cake and slips the rug right out from the audience; the trouble here is that we expect it all along, and what begins as patiently waiting through the setup to get to the con eventually turns into barely tolerating the con to get to the payoff, which then promptly falls flat on its face. Nine Queens
exists for that delicious realization that nothing was as it seemed and we, as the audience, were just as fooled as the pigeon in the film, but for once ‘what it seemed’ turns out to be nothing of interest. It really is a shame because Juan and Marcos are fun to watch, and their interactions function mainly to send out feelers from one to other, trying to see if they are trust worthy which results in minor verbal fencing duels. Mr. Bielinsky’s film is both smarty and economically shot (no fancy camera work here, just enough close ups to keep the tension and distrust running and a subtly clay red color palette to keep continuity) as well as having a nice minimalist score that pops up occasionally, but a con movie that is not clever is like a John Woo film without double fisted handguns, in the end it just doesn't work.