REVIEW: Argentina Undercover; Bielinsky's Clever "Nine Queens"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/04.15.02) — Some thrillers fare well on a single viewing. Take “Memento,” a one-trick pony, a clever one but one that nevertheless quickly decomposes into agonizing monotony on a second visit. “Nine Queens,” a David Mamet-goes-South-of-the-Border-scam-game, however, becomes more tantalizing on a follow-up encounter.
On your initial viewing, you dedicate your time to unraveling the comically complex yet riveting plot, trying to deduce which scoundrel has the upper hand at any specific moment. On your revisit, you can relax a bit and just take in everyone’s motives and tics while still having your interest piqued.
Thanks to director/writer Fabián Bielinsky‘s immeasurable cleverness in his feature debut, plenty of motives and tics are supplied, along with an astute dissection of Argentinean society with a bayonet-sharp scalpel.
Buenos Aires is the chosen locale here, a rural Purgatory-gone-awry where banks are closing, the rich are skedaddling elsewhere with the middle-classes’ earnings, and everyone’s hands are in everyone else’s pockets. No wonder someone can say with a straight face, “There’s nothing better than a Paraguayan Rolex.”
“Nine Queens” commences with Juan (Gastón Pauls), an enterprising young man, pulling a bill-changing scam on a cashier in a convenience store. Successful, he tries to repeat his luck in the same shop a few minutes later when there’s a shift change. Caught red-handed, an undercover cop on the premises immediately arrests him and drags him away to the police station. Or so Juan thinks. Actually, that cop is none other than Marcos (Ricardo Darín), a big-time small-time crook. Marcos is one of those delicious bad-boy concoctions, not unlike Ripley, about whom you wouldn’t mind seeing a whole series of films. He’s the consummate lovable villain from whose voracious greed no one is safe: not elderly pensioners, dying friends, nor even his own trusting siblings.
Well, once Juan is spirited away from the failure of his last enterprise and before he can catch his breath, he’s talked into being Marcos’ accomplice for a day in a series of petty crimes Juan too wary to commit himself for longer than that. These two men are diametrical opposites morally. Juan prefers victimless crimes; Marcos is only concerned with the compensation he’ll receive for his dastardly deeds. If he comes out ahead with only a candy bar or 10 pesos, that’s one candy bar and 10 pesos more than he had yesterday. If a dozen people’s lives are ruined so he can have that crunchy nut candy, so what?
But suddenly, as if the gods were tired of observing Marcos and Juan’s wasting their efforts at mediocre heists, the duo is swept into the midst of a big time caper. Think a half million dollars or more. All they have to do is sell a sheet of forged stamps known as the Nine Queens to a billionaire businessman. The catch: they have to do it before the day is over.
To say more would be unfair. Just let’s allow everything goes right, then wrong, then right, and then you’re not too sure. Who’s on top? Marcos? Juan? The businessman? Or any of the other dozen eccentric characters who join the shenanigans? You won’t know until the very last minute — which is how it should be. Adding to the excitement is the assured visual sense of cinematographer Marcelo Camorino and the finesse of editor Sergio Zottola.
As for the cast, it’s a rollicking fine accumulation of character actors who let loose in spades. Pauls is capital as the insecure thief who might have just gotten in over his head when he shook hands with Marcos. There’s also a lackadaisical sexiness about him that makes you want to catch up on his previous work that’s not been released here. “What else can he do?” you’ll be asking yourself.
Then there’s Darín. This is his year. With the lead in the Oscar-nominated “Son of the Bride” and his award-winning role here (Argentinean Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor), he proves his range is limitless. From rogue to romantic lead, from clown to depressed soul, from hearty, self-involved restaurateur to the King of Bastards, he plays his parts effortlessly.
Which brings us back to “Nine Queens” and the sociological insights it supplies. A saying of Virgil comes to mind: “From a single crime know the nation.” One wonders if you substitute “movie” for “crime” whether the adage still holds true.