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Nine Queens (December 29/02)

Read any review of Nine Queens, and the David Mamet comparisons will inevitably pop up. It's not unwarranted, though, as Nine Queens is the sort of film Mamet's cornered the market in. Following the exploits of con men in the efforts to pull off a huge score, it's a storyline that relies on innovative direction and a clever script to prevent itself from seeming derivative (which it is, in a way). First-time writer/director Fabian Bielinsky has populated the movie with intriguing characters and thrown in a variety of cons that are certainly quite interesting, but he lets the whole thing get away from him and the film winds up running about a half hour longer than it has any right to.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a struggling swindler, stuck cheating convenience stores out of unimpressive amounts of cash. He catches the eye of Marcos (Ricardo Darin), a professional con artist who's coincidentally in need of a new partner. The two spend a day getting acquainted, demonstrating various small-time cons for each other. After coming across a potentially lucrative opportunity involving a set of forged stamps known as the Nine Queens, the two have to decide whether or not they can trust each other.

Nine Queens' first act, with Marcos and Juan demonstrating a variety of cons for each other (and for the audience), is easily the most compelling section of the film. Marcos is so devoted to the life that he makes a scene to get a free newspaper, rather spend a little cash. The ease with which they pull off these complicated scams - particularly the one that finds them ripping off a restaurant - is certainly compelling to watch, and makes the remainder of the film (which has a far more conventional structure) all-the-more disappointing.

The bulk of the movie's midsection is spent setting up the elaborate heist that's to take place, involving the forged stamps, so the pace naturally slows down considerably. It's still essentially entertaining, though, watching these guys set up this extremely elaborate ruse for the purpose of fooling one man (the fellow who's to buy the stamps). But by the time the end rolls around and the final twist has been revealed, it doesn't seem entirely plausible. Too much time and effort seems to have gone into a relatively minor payoff, and with that many participants, each person's share must have been ridiculously low.

Still, Nine Queens isn't the kind of film that gets made nearly as often as it should. Though Bielinsky holds a lot of promise, David Mamet remains the master at this genre (check out The Spanish Prisoner for a similar movie that's a heck of a lot better).

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