Revisiting ‘Nueve Reinas,’ the Thrilling Argentine Crime Caper That’s Been Remade 4 Times

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There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a sure bet. And what better way to confirm a film’s financial viability than just letting someone else do it first? Like, say… Argentina! Of course, Hollywood remakes of foreign films do go all the way back to Mexico’s Golden Age — when film execs were a little more daring, more in love with the movies — but along with the whole Marvel thing, the Argentine remakes are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Just this week we got a preview of Julia Robert’s take on Juan José Campanella’s Academy Award-winning El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in their Eyes), which without the whole dirty war/military junta subtext becomes a kind of creepy film about vigilante justice. But even before El secreto became an international hit there was 2000’s Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), writer-director Fabián Bielinksy’s loop-de-loop low budget crime caper that unexpectedly turned into a global film phenomenon.

Granted, Nueve Reinas’ mass appeal is entirely understandable. The plot follows a master-apprentice duo of high-stakes conmen setting the stage for a big time haul only to run into a series of unforeseen snags. But, in fitting with the genre, things close out with a whopper of a twist, and we ultimately learn that the con was really on us, the spectators, for taking the story at face value. It’s a rompecabezas approach to storytelling that, when done just right, can leave your jaw on the floor — and Nueve Reinas does it right. Think of classics like Oceans 11 or The Grifters, add a splash of Ricardo Darín. Shake. Repeat.

And unsurprisingly, Hollywood dug it. Specifically, tinseltown royalty George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, who threw their weight behind a 2004 American remake called Criminal through their Section Eight production company. Directed by Gregory Jacobs of Magic Mike XXL fame, Criminal essentially took the twists and turns of Nueve Reinas plot, switched the dialogue to English, and changed the location to Los Angeles.

Throw in John C. Reilly, Diego Luna (you know, to keep that ‘Latin feel’), and Maggie Gylenhaal, and you’ve got a box office dud with a really boring title. Yes, the budget was never made public, but Criminal pulled in less than a million at the worldwide box office. Wonder why you never heard of it?

But Nueve Reinas’ odyssey didn’t end there. Oh, no. Just imagine producer Cecilia Bossi’s pleasant surprise when she got a call saying, “Bollywood loved it! They want to do another remake!” And they did.

Bluffmaster! was Indian director Rohan Sippy’s second feature, with a screenplay by Shridhar Raghavan. The 2005 Hindi-language film maintained Nueve Reinas’ basic idea of a con-within-a-con, but they opted to take out the twist structure and add a subplot about terminal cancer. And it worked. Sort of. Bluffmaster! was a moderate box office success in South Asia, and critical reception was lukewarm to positive. Still, I’m sure the team behind Criminal would take that CV any day.

But did it end there? Nope. The Nueve Reinas formula apparently found its home on the Indian subcontinent, and the remakes just kept on coming. First the story moved south to the Malayalam-speaking state of Kerala where prolific helmer V.K. Prakash directed 2009’s Gulumaal: The Escape. While it stuck pretty close to the Nueve Reinas script, Gulumaal still made a couple of minor changes: first they switched the object of the con from forged stamps to a forged painting, and then they changed an inheritance drama for a shady family business deal.

Yet Prakash insisted rather unconvincingly that he hadn’t made the connection to Nueve Reinas until he had already come up with the story for Gulumaal. But despite it’s dubious parentage, critics praised the film’s acting while sharing a generalized disappointment in the director’s musical choices.

Then, in 2012, Nueve Reinas world remake tour seemingly came to an end in the Tulugu-speaking states of southeastern Indian, where it was given the title All the Best. Regional powerhouse J.D. Chakravarthy directed a screenplay by Krishna Moham Challa, while acting in a starring role alongside some of the most cherished Tulugu comedians. The production also put a lot of stress on the positive values of the feature, spinning Bielinksy’s plot into a morality tale about selfishness.

It seems that was just what local audiences were looking for, and All the Best ended up being one of the most successful productions of 2012.

It just goes to show that while Hollywood gets lazier with each passing year, Latin American cinema is turning into a worldwide phenomenon. Where might we be seeing El secreto de sus ojos in twelve years? Russia? Dubai? Nigeria? Hell, even if it’s none of the above I’m sure the producers are happy enough with a Hollywood remake.