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December 2004 Issue
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By Eric Cox

Soderbergh's Twelve

Ocean's Twelve

Released by Warner Brothers

Rated PG-13 for language

 

Director Steven Soderbergh broke into Hollywood in 1989 with his bizarre, small-budget independent hit Sex, Lies, and Videotape. For several years he maintained his underground status with obscure films like Kafka (1991), Underneath (1995), Gray's Anatomy (1996), and Schizopolis (1996).

 

Then he met George Clooney.

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After working together on the smash adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Out of Sight (1998), Soderbergh and Clooney became business partners, collaborating on a remake of the Rat Pack movie Ocean's Eleven in 2001. (In the meantime, Soderbergh directed Traffic and Erin Brockovich, both of which were nominated for Best Picture in 2000.)

 

After a commercial disappointment with a remake of Solaris (2002), Soderbergh and Clooney have retreated to safer territory with a sequel to a remake, Ocean's Twelve.

 

The film opens with a re-introduction to each of the title characters from the first film, who is each in his own way spending the millions of dollars appropriated from casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) in a job three years earlier.

 

Meanwhile, Benedict has been tipped off to their whereabouts by a mysterious stranger who goes by the name of the Night Fox, whom we shall later learn is the most accomplished thief in Europe and maybe the world.

 

After each of the criminals has been tracked down by Benedict, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) assembles them once again to suggest another caper so that they can earn enough money to pay off Benedict.

 

Figuring that it's too risky to attempt another large-scale job in the U.S. so soon after their last one, the crew decides to travel overseas. Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) suggests Amsterdam, neglecting to mention his ulterior motive, which is that an ex-girlfriend whom he still loves lives there, and that she just happens to be Detective Isabel Lahiri of Europol (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

 

So, up against Benedict's deadline of two weeks to come up with almost $200 million, the planning of the heist begins, and soon Ocean's Eleven are not only being pursued by Detective Lahiri, but they are also being challenged by the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), who wants to prove that he is a better thief than they.

 

Like Soderbergh's version of Ocean's Eleven, the sequel is stylish and self-reflexive, but in this case almost too deliberately so. The film's clever style intrudes on and hampers its substance at almost every turn.

 

For instance, the movie wins big laughs for one particular gag that I will not mention here, but the effect of that gag is to explode the so-called third wall separating the world of the film and the real world--something that French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard loved to do, especially in his early films, but which is out of place here.

 

The film has a "see what I can do" feel to it which is both its best quality and its worst. All of that showing off comes at the expense of an overlong running time and viewer fatigue.

 

Ocean's Twelve is a more interesting film than its predecessor, but not a better one. It invests much less in the personalities and relationships of its main characters, treating them like cartoonish vehicles for the plot and Tarantino-style dialogue. As a result, it is of little consequence to us whether Ocean's squad succeeds in their heist or not, and that is not good in a heist film.

 

But the attention to style and atmospherics does have its upside: The movie is entertaining, especially the marriage of image and soundtrack, which director Steven Soderbergh has a special talent for.

 

The script also gives the actors terrific material suited to their own levels of ability. Zeta-Jones and Matt Damon shine in the only two roles in the film which require above-average acting ability, and Brad Pitt and George Clooney never look better than when they are in commanding positions which require them to say as little as possible.

 

Catherine Zeta-Jones's character is by far the most compelling one throughout most of the movie. Unfortunately, that too is undermined when screenwriter George Nolfi has her make some decisions for plot convenience that we cannot imagine her making.

 

Ocean's Twelve is the ultimate popcorn movie, bent on entertaining a multiplex audience at every moment of every scene. Steven Soderbergh has certainly come a long way since Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

 

Eric Cox is a research fellow at the Sagamore Institute and a movie columnist for TAEmag.com.