American movies this past year have received quite a workout when it comes to using the heist/double-cross plot devices in their movies. "Heartbreakers," "The Score" and the aptly named "Heist" all were successful trips down the con pipe, but suffered from that claustrophobic traffic jam feel of too many similar scenarios, too close together. Now comes Argentina's "Nine Queens" (IMDb listing), a hit in its homeland, and another picture about the sweet smell of the steal and the painstaking process of getting there.
Small time crook Juan (Gaston Pauls) meets Marcos (Ricardo Darin) at a gas station when Juan fails to pull off a simple money scam on the cashier. Perceiving promise in the younger thief, Marcos takes Juan under his wing and offers him a chance at a bigger score. Both men have overwhelming money issues, and a set of rare stamps, called "The Nine Queens," have come into their possession to sell. Sensing a payday so huge that their problems will be a thing of the past, Marcos and Juan take their stamps to a shady businessman, whose own swindling nature breeds paranoia and suspicion between Marcos and Juan.
It's easy to get carried away and praise "Nine Queens" for being such an entertaining movie. But itıs important to remember that the film is your basic, run-of-the-mill grifter picture, as it includes the standard double-crossing and "who can you trust?" angle these films feed upon. And while "Nine Queens" doesn't have the kick of, say, David Mamet's highly-stylized "Heist," it does manage to skate by with a constantly evolving script and arid direction by Fabian Bielinsky.
But that's not to say the plot twists in "Nine Queens" are as predictable as their appearance in the film. The picture is well written enough to keep you guessing to the very end, with the climax alone doing an admirable job of having a big enough revelatory surprise that you walk out of the theater with a big smile. Bielinsky's direction is nicely laid out, avoiding guns, explosions and potty-mouthed bad guys, and instead concentrating on building the steam engine of deception to a point where you can't take your eyes off the screen. This hesitant effect keeps the story flowing. It's always nice when a filmmaker strips a genre to its bare essentials.
As with Frank Oz's "The Score," "Nine Queens" runs longer than it should, with many dry patches left throughout the film that might leave the audience a little antsy for more steal, less spiel. But the moments in between the inert drama, such as the planning of the swindle or the constant thwarting of the stamp deal, are as solid and well-crafted as anything you will see this year.
I also enjoyed Bielinsky's insistence that Juan and Marcos are not nice guys. These men steal from old ladies, and Marcos even tries to talk his own sister into sleeping with someone for money! But you can't condemn these gentlemen entirely, and attraction to them doesn't solely come from the irresistible aura of a thief. Bielinsky writes his characters precisely, thus making them as real as you or me. Even at their worst, you can respect their human qualities, and even when "Nine Queens" sporadically loses focus, you just canıt resist the art of these two con artists.
Filmfodder Grade: B