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This is a one sweet sexy sting of a movie. I’ve heard people say that one con-game flick is the same as another, that is unless David Mamet writes it and it turns into a classic like, say, Glengarry Glen Ross. Well, Mamet didn’t write Confidence, Doug Jung did. And if Jung doesn’t reinvent Pulp Fiction, at least he knows how to twist it into playful new shapes.

The first line in the movie had me hooked: “So I’m dead, and I think it’s because of this redhead.” Nice, huh? The speaker is Jake Vig (Edward Burns), a scam artist who finds himself lying face down in an alley. There is blood. Jake will narrate the movie in flashback. This, too, is not new. We are meant to remember William Holden in Sunset Blvd. Fancy remembering. So we are being scammed here, but by creative people who appreciate what they’re scamming. They savor it. This holds especially true for James Foley, who directed Glengarry (still the best screen version of a Mamet play) and who buffs Confidence until it shines like a hooker’s lip gloss. Foley is great with actors, not just in Glengarry. He couldn’t save Madonna from herself in Who’s That Girl?, but watch the work he does with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken in At Close Range.

In Confidence, Foley doesn’t so much direct the actors as spark them. Burns has been struggling to match the impact of his 1995 debut in The Brothers McMullen, the low-budget indie he also wrote and directed. Last year’s Life or Something Like It used him as hunk decoration for co-star Angelina Jolie. As Jake, Burns comes into his own as an actor. He looks comfortable in his own skin, blending humor, heat and raw cunning into a knockout performance that anchors the movie.

Then again, Foley brings out the best in damn near everybody. Paul Giamatti is pricelessly funny as one of Jake’s gang; Donal Logue and Luis Guzman play crooked cops with sleazy authority; and Rachel Weisz burns with come-on carnality as the pickpocket Jake graduates to the big leagues. I’m not giving away any more of the plot in this review, but I will tell you to keep a keen eye on Andy Garcia who underplays an F.B.I. agent with uncanny subtlety and skill.

Underplaying, of course, has nothing to do with Dustin Hoffman in the role of The King, an L.A. mobster that Jake is into for $150,000. The King runs a strip club as a front for his operation, and Hoffman’s eyes dance with gross lividity as he orders girls to strip. With Jake, he’s creepily flirtatious. “That’s some Irish muscle ass you got on you,” he says, grinning like a grizzled cobra. Hoffman isn’t acting really, what he does is more like shameless showing off. But his scenes with Burns crackle with the toxic energy that makes Confidence a game worth playing.

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May 2, 2003

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