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December 8, 2004
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Stealing Second

Ocean’s Twelve is subtraction by addition, but still fun.

George Clooney, Elliott Gould, Brad Pitt, and Don Cheadle find a quiet place to think of a new scheme for ‘Ocean’s Twelve.’

Ocean’s Twelve

Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julia Roberts. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by George Nolfi.

Rated PG-13.

Blade: Trinity

Starring Wesley Snipes, Jessica Biel, and Ryan Reynolds. Written and directed by David S. Goyer. Rated R.

We don’t really ask for much from Hollywood. Meaningless, weightless escapism? Bring it on! Just bring it with some style and a few big laughs. Still, the great majority of mainstream movies fail to deliver even that, which is why Ocean’s Eleven was so refreshing when it came out three years ago. It gave us huge stars cutting loose and happily deferring the spotlight to one another, plus a tightly plotted script and the tossed-off suavity of Steven Soderbergh’s direction — why couldn’t Hollywood accomplish this more often?

And so we have Ocean’s Twelve. The first film made a ton of money, and the actors obviously had fun making it. Why not try to recapture the magic? Trading on the original’s good vibes, the sequel does a fair enough job.

It begins with a reunion of the gang led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney), though not by their choice. Pissed-off Las Vegas hotel/casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) has tracked them down one by one and is literally looking for payback — on pain of death, he gives the thieves two weeks to reimburse him with interest for the $160 million they stole. It’s too dangerous to pull another heist in the United States, so Danny and company traipse off to Amsterdam and Rome in search of a job that’ll raise the necessary funds.

The relationship between Danny and Tess (Julia Roberts) is now settled, so the filmmakers give the romantic lead to No. 2 guy Rusty (Brad Pitt). It turns out that slightly more than three years prior, he rudely ditched his girlfriend, a European Union cop (Catherine Zeta-Jones), when she caught on to his line of work. Now she’s back, and she knows exactly what the gang is up to. This relationship doesn’t spice up this film the way the Danny-Tess romance did for the first, but having a smart detective keeping tabs on the gang gives the sequel enough of a new wrinkle.

It could have used a few more of those from first-time screenwriter George Nolfi. The subplots are all too tidy — you can easily guess the identity of a retired master thief named Lamarck, as well as the FBI agent (Cherry Jones) who springs the gang from prison. The same goes for the plot in which the gang calls upon Tess to impersonate a movie star, though admittedly the resulting 10 minutes or so is a deft chunk of farce that produces the film’s biggest laughs.

Really, though, this movie is less about the heist than it is about the funny business along the margins, like the apropos-of-nothing moment when Danny and Rusty watch an episode of Happy Days dubbed into Italian. (Danny deadpans, “The guy doing Potsie is unbelievable.”) The same chemistry carries over from the first film — the characters have such a complete read on one another that they don’t have to complete their thoughts. Clooney’s really just there to set the tone and preside over things, much like Frank Sinatra did in the Rat Pack films. A bigger load falls on Matt Damon, whose Linus suddenly finds himself in charge late in the game when a police sting lands most of the gang in prison. He agreeably fills the role of comic second-banana that Pitt had in the original. Too bad the movie doesn’t have enough good material to spread out to the whole gang — Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, and Scott Caan get the short end of things.

Not all the new players come up aces, either. British comedy stars Robbie Coltrane and Eddie Izzard make appearances, but their talents far outstrip what they’re given to do. Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, fits in here with little strain. This actress has always been a tad on the one-dimensional side, but she knows what she can and can’t do and picks her projects very intelligently on that basis. Topher Grace also reprises his cameo from the original to even funnier effect, playing himself here as a hotel-room-trashing showbiz wreck. Even better is Vincent Cassel as a superwealthy French master thief who meddles in the gang’s business. This lithe-bodied, sharp-faced actor has shown astonishing range in his French films, but most American audiences haven’t had the chance to appreciate him (despite his being the voice of Monsieur Robin Hood in the first Shrek). Here, he has a scene in which he dances through a field of laser tripwires, and it’s a bit worthy of a standing ovation.

In the end, Ocean’s Twelve plays like an extended “deleted scenes” feature on a DVD, but who says those can’t be entertaining on their own modest terms? As a popcorn picture, this is better than anything that’s currently in the theaters except The Incredibles, and its wisecracking sophistication is vastly preferable to the aggressive stupidity of National Treasure. For Steven Soderbergh and his cast, it’s a working vacation while they ponder their next and hopefully worthier project. For you, it’s a pleasant way to pass two hours.

Taking Snipes

The Blade franchise is drained of life in its third go-around.

When the first Blade film came out in 1998, director Stephen Norrington fashioned it into a balky but entertaining piece of hack work. When Blade II was released two years ago, director Guillermo Del Toro ratcheted up the gore and developed the latent S&M themes in the material, turning it into something bizarre and superior. Now the third film arrives in theaters, and the franchise takes a gigantic step back. David S. Goyer, who wrote the scripts for all three movies, steps behind the camera as the director for Blade: Trinity, and the move proves to be disastrous.

Wesley Snipes returns as the half-human, half-vampire antihero. In the other corner is a group of vampires that have located and resurrected the ur-vampire (Dominic Purcell), known as Dagon in some circles and Dracula in others, to help bring about a final solution that’ll allow the vampires to walk in sunlight and enslave the human race once and for all. Exactly how he’ll do that remains unclear. Once again, Blade sees his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) get murdered. (Poor Whistler! He’s like Kenny in South Park.) It’s up to a sleeper cell of vampire-fighting humans led by Whistler’s long-lost daughter (Jessica Biel) to help Blade vanquish the new evil.

Goyer comes up with some interesting story ideas, but he’s not filmmaker enough to do them justice. The storyline initially has Blade being pursued by law enforcement after accidentally killing a human during one of his vampire-hunting sprees. This plot delivers the hero into the hands of a buffoonish police psychologist (Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins), but then Goyer unceremoniously forgets about the cops chasing Blade. The revelation that the vampires keep warehouses full of homeless people on life support to harvest their blood is a spark of inspiration that ignites nothing.

Even if these had been more fully explored, though, the movie still would have sunk under the weight of its amateurish action sequences and special effects. This is one Hollywood film where you actually sense that you could pick up a video camera, call your friends over to your house, and stage more realistic and visually coherent fight scenes. Even the simple job of filming the flight of an arrow proves to be too much for Goyer.

Snipes delivers all his lines through clenched teeth — he might as well have a cardboard cutout of himself playing the role. His scenes with Kristofferson are painfully wooden, and the presence of Jessica Biel in any movie signals that good acting is a low priority. Which isn’t to say that it’s totally absent. Ryan Reynolds is at least watchable, bringing a bitchy wit to his role as a former vampire fighting alongside the humans. There’s also a magnificent stroke of casting in Parker Posey as the head vampire. With fangs in her large mouth and Goth makeup on her pale skin, she makes for a hot member of the walking dead, and her heavily sarcastic attitude is the right one for someone stuck in this shambolic mess.

You can reach Kristian Lin at kristian.lin@fwweekly.com.


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