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Twelve is the new zero
(Filed: 04/02/2005)

Ocean's Twelve

Dustin Hoffman

In pictures: top 10 films

Ocean's Twelve 12A cert, 125 min

Steven Soderbergh's convoluted sequel to 'Ocean's Eleven' features a gorgeous cast in search of a plot, says Sukhdev Sandhu

Back they glide, all gleaming-toothed smiles and designer clobber, their skin tanned to look as brown and gobblesome as fudge: Brad and Julia and Matt and George. A supernova of modern-day Hollywood superstardom. Film casts couldn't get any more spectacular.

Ocean's Twelve
A-list galore: Damon, Pitt and Clooney

Any director who's pulled off the coup of getting all these talents together is going to feel pretty proud of himself. Steven Soderbergh certainly seems to be. Ocean's Twelve, the follow-up to Ocean's Eleven, is less a fully-formed movie and more a paid vacation, an extended photo shoot for all concerned.

After the first picture, Soderbergh swore blind that that was it. That whatever curiosity he had in harnessing his own left-field talents to such a mainstream project would be sated. This then is the cinema equivalent of the Over-35 Mixed Doubles at Wimbledon, or synth-pop bands of the early 1980s reforming – a guaranteed chunk of change; the chance to hang out together with no pressure to do anything new or amazing. Everybody's having a great old time. It's just for fun.

The plot, and here I find myself referring to my scribbled notes for I'd completely forgotten it long before the picture itself had ended, starts with casino boss Andy Garcia tracking down Danny Ocean (Clooney) and his gang and telling them that they've got two weeks to pay back every cent of the $160 million they robbed from him last time round.

Leaving Las Vegas, Utah and all the other places they've been lying low in, they decamp to Europe where they carry out elaborate raids on antique-collector's home and a Fabergé egg-exhibiting museum, only to discover that a French maestro burglar called The Nightfox (Vincent Cassel) has beaten them to it.

Ocean's Twelve
Bottoms up: Julia Roberts and George Clooney

The script by George Nolfi is thin to say the least. Soderbergh and his editor Stephen Mirrione have tried to get around this by playing fast and loose with chronology. Long sections of the film are so convoluted, attempting in their manic twists and turns to generate some much-needed energy, that we're left with a jigsaw we can't really be bothered to solve.

Neither is there much tension. Because of the sudden leaps forward in time, we know not to expect any of the gang members to suffer unduly; they'll always escape or be sprung free from whatever tricky situation they find themselves in.

An episode of Ground Force has more against-the-clock drama. And, unlike Mission: Impossible, there are no torso-bulging, frenzied dashes here; the characters are too busy trying to be cool to think about breaking into a sweat or creasing their jackets.

Ageing gang members Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould are, of course, totally lovable and idiosyncratic. But it's the newcomers who fare the best.

Catherine Zeta Jones, as the trenchcoat-and-stilettoes-wearing Europol agent out to nab the gang, is reunited with Soderbergh for the first time since Traffic and is as fascinatingly self-possessed and lovely as ever.

It would have been good to see more of Cassel, too. An extravagantly talented actor, as shown in films as diverse as La Haine and Irreversible, he has a winning, curled-lip menace. The balletic grace and guile he displays to leap over and under the roaming laser beams that protect the museum's Fabergé egg recall French footballer Zinedine Zidane in his prime.

George Clooney
Surveying all he sees: Danny Ocean

With so much beautiful flesh and fashion on display, it's no wonder that the film seems at times to want to lick itself with self-love. It winks ironically, too, featuring a heist opportunity that requires the character played by Julia Roberts being asked to pretend to be the actress Julia Roberts. David Holmes's score is his usual, very enjoyable slathering of new beats to old soundtracks.

Ocean's Twelve, with all its artful flashbacks and jumps forward, will be of most interest to longtime Soderbergh fans, who will see this as a belated follow-up to The Limey. The zig-zagging plot and the sudden close zooms are straight out of the '60s New Wave bag of tricks. A muggy traffic jam scene recalls Antonioni.

In fact, the whole film can be seen as a bold attempt to de-Hollywood Lewis Milestone's original Ocean's Eleven from 1960 and to remake it in the style of a Jean-Luc Godard picture. A worthy enough goal: shame the end results are so lacklustre.

Chain No cert, 99 min

Chain, the new film by American Jem Cohen best known for his videos for REM and Elliott Smith, is the anti-Ocean's Twelve. The gleaming surfaces and superlandscapes that dazzle Soderbergh he regards as sterile examples of the damage wreaked on local places and histories by modern-day capitalism. An uncategorisable hybrid of social critique, poetic essay and haunted travelogue, it recalls the work of documentarians Humphrey Jennings and Chris Marker, to both of whom Chain is dedicated.

It's rare that a film includes a list of "Good Books" in the closing credits. One of those mentioned is Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's account of women living on the minimum wage. Amanda (Mira Billotte) is trying to do something similar, working as a motel cleaner in nowheresville USA, while at night recounting the day's events in a tranquillised monotone in front of a stolen video camera.

Meanwhile, serving a bitterly contrapuntal function, Tamiko (Miho Nikaido) is a Japanese businesswoman who has been sent to the States on a scouting mission to look for potential theme-park sites. Her language is dreamy and idealistic. She prefers America to Japan, and has, since childhood, been seduced by the very locations in which Amanda finds herself abandoned.

This is a film about national geographies - and the growing lack of them.

It was shot, not that it's readily apparent just from looking at it, in Germany, France, Australia, America. Cohen drifts through the hollow utopias of new retail parks and enterprise zones. We find ourselves mourning the loss of human architecture, the grimy textures of a bygone world.

Chain, which opens in London on Tuesday and tours the country in the spring, has its longueurs, but then, as J G Ballard once predicted, "the future is boring." It mines some of the same territory as Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 and Olivier Assayas's demonlover, but with a punchier political edge. Particularly compelling are Amanda's dispatches from the subterranean service economy, bulletins of alienation and loneliness punctuated with the odd grace note of droll humour.

Cohen seems to believe in what Gramsci called "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will". The terrific soundtrack, including the dread majesty of Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor chamber-rock outfit and assorted stray folk shanties, represents imaginative resistance against the forces of homogenisation. This is vital, boundary-pushing film making.

2 February 2002: Return of the cool caper [interview with Steven Soderbergh]
10 December 2001: Soderbergh's dizzy heist [review of Ocean's Eleven]

Related links
Reviews of La Nina santa, Racing Stripes, Shabd and 15

External links
Ocean's Twelve

Chain - Internet Movie Databse [IMDb]