Friday, December 10, 2004
Soderbergh takes a gamble with twists in 'Ocean's Twelve'
The original 1960 "Ocean's Eleven" was a rather poor heist movie that became an enduring classic of cocktail culture because it captured the pre-corporate Vegas of the '50s and defined the hip sensibility of the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack.
Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake was a bigger box-office hit and a better movie. It also captured the Vegas of its time in a glamorous way and worked as a hip vehicle for a large ensemble of stars, but its heist was more clever and engrossing.
For his sequel, "Ocean's Twelve," Soderbergh takes the characters out of Vegas via a highly contrived premise, abandons all pretense of being a challenging or exciting thriller and turns the proceedings into a self-parodying farce.
It's a strange brew that audiences are likely to either love or hate. As a caper movie, it's a travesty that's impossible to understand or follow, but it's quite funny and clicks along nicely as a giddy, self-deprecating showcase for its gaggle of stars.
Like most movie sequels these days, it assumes you saw the last episode on DVD yesterday and jumps right into its situation with no recap or exposition. So if you haven't done your homework, there's a whole reel of disorientation before you get your feet on the ground.
Basically, however, it picks up the story three years after the big casino theft just as Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and the rest of his former team (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, etc.) have been tracked down by the still-enraged casino owner (Andy Garcia) they ripped off.
He gives them two weeks to return the $90 million they stole plus three years worth of interest. They've spent most of the money so they have no choice but to reassemble and carry off a series of jobs against the ticking clock.
It soon turns out that this situation has been manipulated by a master thief from France (Vincent Cassel), whose ego has been offended by Ocean's success and has set up his dilemma as a test to determine who is the greater criminal genius.
Also new to the franchise is a beautiful, determined Interpol agent (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who was once the lover of the Brad Pitt character and is following the unfolding events from a distance so she can nail all the gentlemen-thieves involved.
If this sounds like the premise for a halfway decent thriller, be warned that it moves through its formula paces like some scriptless happening of the '60s that's being made up by its director as it goes along and ad-libbed by a cast of actors under the influence.
By any measure, it's a terrible caper movie. It generates zero suspense, it offers none of the intellectual fun of the genre at its best and it delivers whole sections -- including a bizarre, climactic train heist -- that make no sense.
Soderbergh also has deliberately de-glammed everything this time. It seems to be shot on video, its posh European locations appear drab and gloomy, and the stars are unflatteringly photographed: Julia Roberts looks gaunt and sickly, and, in at least one shot, the camera goes out of its way to reveal Zeta-Jones' acne scars.
And yet, curiously, the stars also come off well -- especially Damon, who does a Bob Newhart-like stand-up routine that's almost worth the price of admission. Everyone seems to be having a great time, and the feeling is communicable.
Much of the seemingly ad-libbed banter and some of the inside jokes are inspired. Soderbergh even manages to pull off a long, buffoonish and enormously risky sequence in which one of the characters masquerades as the real-life star who plays her.
The film is so goofy and Soderbergh is normally such a serious filmmaker that this first sequel of his career could even be read as a parody not just of "Ocean's Eleven" and heist thrillers but of Hollywood's obsession with and economic reliance on sequels.
He almost seems to be telling us that, by its very nature, a sequel is doomed to be an inferior product. If that's what people want, here it is. But I'm not about to pretend it's anything but a contrivance and I'm going to have a ball doing it.
P-I movie critic William Arnold can be reached at 206-448-8185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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