Con artist Jake Vig unwittingly steals money from whacko LA gangster The King. To avert homicidal retribution, Jake offers to repay the debt by undertaking an elaborate sting with his crew of grifters, including seductive pickpocket Lily, although tenacious federal agent Butan is on his trail.
Late in this film, the mastermind main character says, "Playing the big con is like putting on a play where everyone knows their part." Inadvertently that sums up the film's own con. Despite its smartness, it is artificial, and we are too aware that the characters are playing parts to fall for them or their games.
Start with an 'oops, we fleeced the wrong guy' notion not dissimilar to that of The Sting; concoct a payback scam that is incredibly complicated (except to those who thrive on corporate finance fraud and offshore money laundering); then frame it as a lengthy flashback of devious double-crosses recounted by an apparently dead protagonist. With that formula, a picture needs considerably more charm, wit and suspense than this one to get away with its constant tricks and obvious reminders of top stuff in the deception genre like The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, The Grifters and House Of Games.
Ed Burns, likeable enough in his own films and useful in more unassuming roles, doesn't have the charisma or dangerous cool his cocky criminal lead demands. Not so long ago Andy Garcia might have done nicely but, alas, he is now grey-bearded and playing the slobbish fed in pursuit. Looking even grubbier, Dustin Hoffman is fabulous as the offbeat local crime boss, lording it over a sleazy strip joint, gigantic goons and a service operation for the mob with a gleeful malevolence that seems unimpaired by his medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Employing actors like Luis Guzmán, Donal Logue and, fleetingly, Robert Forster (as the mogul targeted for the big con) in small roles emphasises Burns' energy deficiency. Otherwise, where this scores is in its direction and good looks. Foley (Fear, Glengarry Glen Ross) charges through a brightly seedy Los Angeles using every camera angle and cutting stunt known to man - the dash and flash in keeping with the over-cleverness.
No-one can accuse this caper of originality, and although it's reasonably fun and sexy, its tiresomely labyrinthine scam is instantly disposable. Hoffman's wicked turn and Foley's snappy direction go some way to maintain interest.