It might well be a blessing not to have seen the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) before experiencing Steven Soderbergh's handsome remake. The pleasures of this new version are satisfying but ephemeral.
The original Ocean's Eleven was a monument to that venerable institution of American showbiz, the Rat Pack – including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr and Frank Sinatra. Soderbergh has assembled a fine crop of today's top stars – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon – and placed them in a vehicle that is all attitude and panache. Even more fun is the calibre of sharp character actors assembled around these stars, such as Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould.
It has been a while since we have seen such a light-hearted, essentially non-violent film celebrating the stylish life of crime. Danny Ocean (Clooney) is nothing like the amoral, driven, grungy crooks who populate the films of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie. He's just a lovable rascal with an eye on the main chance – a seemingly impenetrable Las Vegas vault that contains the combined takings of five casinos.
In its relentless pursuit of a jauntiness worthy of the original Rat Pack, Ocean's Eleven becomes an oddly whimsical action film. After the obligatory Seven Samurai-style section in which Ocean recruits, one by one, the members of his crack team, we cruise into what seem like very casual preparations for the big job. Unlike virtually any other thriller, there is no harping on the approaching deadline, and very little conflict within these criminal ranks.
The film picks up speed and interest once the elaborate theft begins – by far its most enjoyable section. The favourite plot device of Soderbergh and writer Ted Griffin is used many times over. Some suspenseful incident is introduced to make us wonder whether the heist is about to unravel. Then it is revealed that everything has, so far, in fact gone perfectly to plan.
The film thus plays constantly with what the British screenwriter and critic Michael Eaton calls, in his book on Polanski's Chinatown (1974), the choreography of knowledge: "It is one of the most important (and mind-bending) of a writer's tasks to orchestrate exactly what their characters need to know at any particular point in the story and to be in control of just how much is revealed to their audience and when." (1)
This is a film not of big, explosive shocks but small twists and surprises – particularly when it comes to the various, amusing disguises that the team members wear, the accents and mannerisms they adopt, and the put-on roles they play. As in The Limey (1999), Soderbergh displays his fondness for characters whose lifestyle necessitates a perpetual, hammy performance.
Curiously, however, while such games constitute the texture of the story, they do not really seem to be what it is really about. Soderbergh invests more thoughtfulness into his subplot – a protracted dance between Ocean and his ex-wife Tess (Roberts), now the lover of steely casino owner Terry (Andy Garcia). This is presented less as a film noir scenario of deadly male rivalry than a breezy tale of remarriage between partners who have too much in common to ever completely separate.
Soderbergh's directorial style is thankfully restrained here after the eyesore of Traffic (2000). While cribbing from Scorsese's Casino (1996) the camera movements that sweep around Terry as he surveys his soon-to-be-violated gambling kingdom, Soderbergh generally uses an understated, clipped, no-nonsense approach in the tradition of Howard Hawks or Sidney Lumet. Mercifully, he completely avoids camping up the inherent pop culture references to the Rat Pack.
© Adrian Martin January 2002
1. Michael Eaton, Chinatown (London: British Film Institute, 1997), p. 32.