In 2001, director Steven Soderbergh remade the old Rat Pack film Ocean’s Eleven with a modern day all-star cast. Some critics carped that the Oscar-winning director was wasting his time making a big, commercial Hollywood blockbuster. Other critics – and most audience members – felt that the movie was intelligent fun. At the time, I wrote: “[Ocean’s Eleven] is proof that ‘big’ movies can be stylish and sophisticated while still being immensely entertaining.” I’ve always felt it was not such a bad thing for an auteur like Soderbergh or Scorsese to occasionally come along and elevate popular filmmaking by bringing style and smarts. Ocean’s Eleven was a prime example of that happening.
The sequel, Ocean’s Twelve, starts off with a brilliant opening sequence. Casino boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who was relieved of his millions in the original, tracks down each member of the gang and demands his money back within two weeks – or else. This inventive introduction allows us to see where all the characters have been since the end of the first film. It also quickly sets up the premise, which is that the gang must reunite to pull off another heist so that Benedict will spare their lives.
We find the characters in different places. For example, ringleader Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is now married to Tess (Julia Roberts) and trying to live a normal suburban life. Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), meanwhile, owns a series of hotels, but still has to deal with the annoyance of young Hollywood sitcom stars. (Topher Grace puts in a hilarious in-jokey cameo.) Other characters we meet again include Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), who is now a record producer, newlywed Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck) and brother/rival Turk (Scott Caan), and former gambler extraordinaire Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner). When the group is finally together in the same room, it is Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) who correctly surmises that they are “too hot” to work in America anymore. They will need to find a heist overseas in order to pay Benedict the $19 million each of them owes.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Their journey through Amsterdam (and later Rome) causes them to cross paths with an internationally known master thief named François Toulour (Vincent Cassel). The success of Ocean’s group has called into question his infamy as “the world’s greatest thief.” Toulour therefore meets with Ocean and issues a challenge to see who can steal a valuable Faberge egg first. If Ocean wins, Toulour will pay off the debt to Benedict. The other monkey wrench in the system is police inspector Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is looking to nail both Toulour and Ocean. She also once had a brief affair with Rusty, who continues to be obsessed with her.
One thing that differentiates Ocean’s Twelve from its predecessor is that the heist is not the center of the story. In the original, we watched the planning and execution of the casino robberies. This time, the heist is sort of told in reverse; we only find out what really happened after it’s already done. Much of the film is devoted to following the characters around to watch how they interact with each other. It’s a more free-form kind of movie, one that doesn’t feel the need to adhere rigidly to the demands of the plot. There’s a willingness to go off on little tangents that are only marginally related to the heist, but which promise to delight the fans.
Believe it or not, the approach works. You can tell that the actors wanted to reunite and have a big party, which is exactly the level on which Ocean’s Twelve works. The stars not only come to the party themselves, but they also invite us to come as well. It is hard to generate great chemistry between two actors, but here we have a dozen actors who create an irresistible group chemistry. Just watching them spar in different combinations is entertaining. For instance, I loved the running joke in which Ocean and Rusty play mind games with Linus, who wants to “play a bigger role” in the operation this time. They intentionally confuse him with double talk, and he tries in vain to make sense of what they’re saying. If you loved the original film, the sequel rewards your interest by pushing the character moments into the foreground.
As before, Steven Soderbergh brings style and grace to the film. The early parts of the film are shot to resemble movies of the French New Wave, whereas the sequences in Rome have a visual style that is Fellini-esque. It’s clear that the director saw a chance to incorporate influences from the old foreign films he dearly loves. The technique works because it looks and feels so different from anything else we’re accustomed to seeing in big Hollywood movies these days. Ocean’s Twelve feels fresh and hip and cool.
To be honest, there are some pretty big plot holes here, as well as a few moments where the story threatens to go right off the rails. One such example is a loopy (but funny) sequence in which Tess pretends to be a major movie star. The idea of trying to use a hologram in the heist seems a little far-fetched as well. That said, Ocean’s Twelve is clearly the work of filmmakers and stars who have come to play. The fun they are visibly having is infectious. I stopped caring about whether or not the plot made sense; I was having too much fun for that. If you can view the film in the spirit in which it was made, Ocean’s Twelve is one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. It’s not art and it’s not substantive, but it sure is a blast.
( 1/2 out of four)
Ocean's Twelve is rated PG-13 for language. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
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