|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 07 May 2002|
"Ocean’s Eleven" is a film that is fun the first time and improves on repeat viewings, a "how’d they do it?" that’s even more enjoyable when you’re in on the story’s tricks.
Reportedly, this remake is a lot better than the 1960 original (still unseen by this reviewer). In its day, the first "Ocean’s Eleven" was seen as the epitome of cool mainly due to its heavy-duty Rat Pack cast: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and their friends. Alas, by all accounts, the cool factor was the sole draw, as most viewers didn’t feel that the 1960 "Ocean’s Eleven" hung together very well as a movie.
This is not the case with the hip, vigorous new edition, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Ted Griffin (like the original, from a story by George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell). It has a sunny, determinedly unpretentious attitude that serves to support its riffs on imaginative fakeouts and easy camaraderie. The big names in the cast don’t try to upstage each other and indeed gracefully step aside for a couple of show-stopping turns from the old pros in the group, along with a stunning display of acrobatic prowess from screen newcomer Shaobo Qin. The only possible complaint – hard to make in the midst of such overall pleasure – is that the robbery details are all so unlikely and the tone so breezy that we don’t feel much of the suspense that heist thrillers usually try to generate.
George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, who we meet as he’s being paroled after four years in jail. On being released into the wide world, Danny promptly breaks every condition of his release by traveling cross-country to put together a crew to pull off the mother of all casino robberies. Three of the biggest hotels in Las Vegas, all belonging to Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), all pour their money into the same vault, which will be overflowing on the night of a title prizefight. As Benedict is even more famous for being vengeful than for being wealthy, it is not only important not to get caught, but to escape altogether unidentified. This would seem an impossible feat, but Danny loves a challenge. Split evenly among eleven colleagues, the take will come to seven figures each, a strong incentive. Furthermore, Benedict is the current boyfriend of Danny’s still-loved ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts), giving Danny a personal motive that doesn’t sit well with his chief partner in crime Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt).
The romance is arguably the least successful angle of the movie, as Roberts makes Tess seem so sincerely angry that we tend to believe her when she says she wants Danny to leave her alone. The interplay between the gang is delightful, though – Clooney and Pitt are endlessly alert yet relaxed, responsive to the rhythms all around them, flexible without being lax. Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck and an unbilled, English-accented Don Cheadle all make distinctive contributions, while Qin’s acrobatic prowess, introduced in Chapter 7 and shown to even greater effect in Chapter 27, is something worth hitting instant repeat to see again and again. Elliott Gould is a joy as a fey bankroller who gets a delicious set-up speech in Chapter 5, interspersed with punchy action, about the three previous most successful (the word is relative here) heists in Vegas history. Carl Reiner is pure assured showmanship as a retired con man who pulls out all the stops in his return to the game. Garcia, gracious and steely enough to suggest a Corleone, is the epitome of a worthy adversary.
Griffin’s dialogue, reportedly augmented by the cast, is consistently fresh and flowing, full of effortless-sounding quips. Soderbergh sets a steady, brisk pace, although he doesn’t really punch it up as the big event kicks in – as a director, he demonstrates a rare respect for his audience, trusting us to comprehend the stakes without trying to artificially inflate them.
Extras on the disc include an intelligent commentary track by director Soderbergh and screenwriter Griffin, which details the thought processes that went into various scenes, and a second commentary track with actors Pitt, Damon and Garcia, who make us feel like we’re hanging out with them at a party. As Pitt puts it, he’s up for doing a "Mystery Science Theatre" take on the movie – it never gets quite that irreverent, but they have some funny observations. The making-of featurette is agreeable, and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland comes off as particularly articulate in a separate featurette on the characters’ apparel.
"Ocean’s Eleven" has a thoroughly modern sensibility in its dialogue, but Soderbergh has a bit of ‘50s/’60s reference in his visual style, especially the way he lights his characters. The picture quality is very handsome, with some spectacular color reproduction: check out the stained-glass ceiling in Chapter 12 as the characters pass beneath it. There’s also a lovely use of golden lighting, combined with some old-fashioned piano arpeggios on the soundtrack, to indicate unspoken heartfelt bliss in Chapter 33. However, Soderbergh doesn’t pound us over the head with the Las Vegas backdrop – we get some establishing shots, but (unlike some other filmmakers) he’s never so caught up in the environment that he slows down for it. We see the city through the eyes of the characters – it’s a snazzy place to work, but there’s nothing here that should make us lose our focus.
Sound is pretty good, if surprisingly unassertive in a few places. In Chapter 16, a huge detonation is heard as if at a distance, producing a wall-rattling, full congestive hum that is realistic but uncommonly low. In Chapter 26, another explosion has directional effects, with shrapnel landing in the rears, but again, it has more impact than volume. Chapter 27 has a nice full blast in the center and mains, with some dimensional heft as metal is kicked out of the way. Gunfire in Chapter 29 is fairly muted, but this is almost certainly intentional. There is a slight ambient hum in Chapters 4 and 5 that is appropriate to the location, but nevertheless more noticeable than such effects usually are.
Although no dialogue is devoted to the matter, our criminal heroes are armed only for show – "Ocean’s Eleven" goes out of its way to show us that these outlaws aren’t thugs nor a real threat to anyone (except themselves, if they’re caught). We can accompany them on their exploits without even vicarious guilt. "Ocean’s Eleven" exhibits almost magical craftsmanship – it twinkles with an assured professionalism and sense of sincere fun that leaves us feeling that we’ve been somewhere else for awhile and had a really good time there.