Dir Steven Soderbergh.US. 2001. 116 min.
Steven Soderbergh's astonishing artistic renewal, that began three years ago with Out Of Sight and The Limey, and reached anunprecedented height last year with Erin Brockovich (for which he received a directing Oscar nomination) and Traffic (which landed him the coveted prize), begins to show signs of strain and fatigue with Ocean's Eleven, his eagerly-awaited but onlysemi-successful and sporadically entertaining update of the cultish 1960 heistmovie. Commercially speaking, with such glorious cast, catchy poster (thatimitates the art work of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and juggernaut marketing (with the entire ensemble appearing on the Barbara Walters, Oprah, and other high-profile US TV chat shows),the new Ocean's Eleven can surely dono wrong. Warner's early holiday release should easily cross the $100m mark, and should make off with even more in foreign territories and ancillary markets. That said, regrettably, Ocean's 11 is a rather flat, retro cool movie that many more viewers will be anxious tosee than actually enjoy.
Just like the original LewisMilestone's film, which was built around the charismatic appeal of thenotorious Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., PeterLawford), the new film is very much structured as a glossy, old-fashioned starvehicle--a throwback to Hollywood's yesteryear--headlined by George Clooney,Brad Pit, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, and, most disappointingly,Julia Roberts, in a pedestrian reworking of the role that Angie Dickinson soalluringly originated. Since the material was not terribly fresh (to say theleast) even by standards of 1960, screenwriter Ted Griffin was faced with thetough challenge of maintaining what was good about the Milestone version and atthe same time update the narrative and characterizations so that they appeal toyoung, contemporary audiences. As a result, Griffin has chosen to emulate notjust the original picture, but also classic American prison-escape adventuressuch as The Great Escape, TheProfessionals, The Dirty Dozen and particularly The Magnificent Seven;in fact, Ocean's Eleven might just as well have been titled "TheMagnificent Eleven" due to itsgorgeous looking cast. Additional artistic influences, on both Griffin anddirector Soderbergh, include the 1973 Oscar-winning The Sting (featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and the1958 Italian classic, Mario Monicelli's Big Deal On Madonna Street, with the younger Vittorio Gassman and MarcelloMastroianni.
Stepping into Sinatra'sfamous part (a role in which the late Steve McQueen would have been perfect hadthe movie been made in the 1970s), Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a dapper, shrewdcon man, who, less than a day after his parole from a New Jersey penitentiary(the film's first scene), is already planning his next big scheme. Three rulesgovern Danny's "code of ethics": Don't hurt anybody, don't steal fromanyone who doesn't deserve it, and always play the game as if you've nothing tolose. It's with a characteristic nonchalance that Danny applies these norms toorchestrating what's meant to be the most sophisticated and elaborate heist inVegas history: Robbing the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand.
Following the structure ofAmerican action pictures, the film chronicles the requisite steps ofrecruitment for the mission, the detailed planning of the heist, the riskyexecution with both anticipated and unanticipated mishaps, and a grand finale.It begins with a depiction of how Danny handpicks his crew of 11 specialists, astrategy that allows each character to have one big scene--the equivalent of atheatrical entrance--as well as providing the viewers sufficient time to spotthe star and marvel at his idiosyncratic quality.
The chief band membersinclude Rusty Ryan (Pitt), an ace card sharp who's Danny's confidante andright-hand man; Linus Caldwell (Damon), a bright master pickpocket but anewcomer with a legacy to live up to (Pitt); Basher Tarr (Cheadle), a colourfuldemolition genius; and Livingston Dell (Jemison), a surveillance specialist whose uncontrollable anxiety threatens the very success of a heistthat involves stealing over $150m from the Vegas casinos.
As was the case in theglossy crime-gangster bio-picture, Bugsy (starring Warren Beatty), the most splendid vignettes belong to the old-time characters--and actors. Hence, an ostentatiously dressed Elliott Gould excels as Reuben Tishkoff, the former Vegas hotel kingpin, who isunceremoniously muscled out by Terry Benedict (Garcia), embodying a new type ofslick and ruthlessly shrewd entrepreneur who owns the casinos. Veterancomic-director Carl Reiner shines as Saul Bloom, the ulcerous old pro, broughtout of retirement to play a crucial role in the heist.
In the name of politicalcorrectness that dictates cultural diversity, Soderbergh balances well the crewin terms of age, generation, and race. If Tishkoff and Bloom are almost bynecessity "too Jewish" in look and outlook, Benedict represents theLatino element, and an Asian, Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin, makes his film debutas Yen, the crew's remarkably agile "grease man."
The weakest piece of castingis represented by Julia Roberts, as Tess, Danny's ex-wife, who has rebuilt herlife in the wake of his arrest, working as the curator of the Bellagio artgallery--and dating Benedict. Though her part is small (about three shortscenes), Roberts looks tired, bored, and unglamorous, and the fact that there'sno chemistry between her and an amorous Clooney makes things worse.
The whole subplot of Dannyengaging in the heist in order to regain his old flame is disappointinglyvapid, despite Soderbergh's honourable intent to revive the cheerful spirit ofall those lovable Hollywood screwball "comedies of remarriage," thebest examples of which are still Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell) and GeorgeCukor's The Philadelphia Story(Grant again, with Katharine Hepburn). In aspiration rather than execution, thewhole movie owes more than a bit to the notable Hawksian sensibility, asmanifest in his male-camaraderie pictures, such as Rio Bravo.
Inevitable comparisons willbe made between Soderbergh's version and the original film, which was just aslazy and rambling. As co-written by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer, theoriginal, just as the remake, labours under the handicaps of a highlycontrived, basically senseless yarn. Both productions are deliberately paced,taking their time in delivering their points, and seeming unconcerned orunbothered by their hackneyed plots.
However, the original filmcontained an amusingly ironic (anti) climax that's not as effective in theupdate. Produced in 1960, the Milestone's version reflected the zeitgeist,specifically the historical beginning of Vegas as the new crass Americancapital. Moreover, the story's flippant attitude toward crime and its amoralideology were rather new and even shocking back then. But four decades later,Las Vegas has been so much used as the site of crime pictures (Bugsy, Casino)that the novelty of this uniquely American locale has worn thin, not to speakof the fact that deep cynicism and both immoral and amoral climate havedominated American movies since the Vietnam War; this may all change as aresult of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
What's terribly missing fromthe new v