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Observer film of the week

This week's reviews

15 (Shiwu)
Laura's star
La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl)
La Niņa Santa
Ocean's Twelve
Racing Stripes

More about Ocean's Twelve

They're all faking it

A-list movie stars have never looked less like criminals than in this fatuous caper

Philip French
Sunday February 6, 2005

Steven Soderbergh's career is one of the more puzzling and wayward of the last 20 years. Back in 1989, he surprised or, rather, shocked people when, after coming from nowhere to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his directorial debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he announced that his next picture would be a remake of an obscure John Frankenheimer comedy of the 1960s.

In fact, his follow-up turned out to be the quirky, unjustly neglected Kafka, after which he made the sweet-natured King of the Hill, the story of a lower-middle-class family caught up in the Depression. He was, however, only postponing his involvement with remakes, and his fourth picture, The Underneath, was a reworking of Robert Siodmak's classic 1948 heist picture, Criss Cross.

Since then, in a fascinatingly erratic progress that includes such mainstream pictures as Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight and weird experimental failures such as Schizopolis and Full Frontal, he's directed or produced seven or eight re-makes, among them his finest work, Traffic, and his latest, Ocean's Twelve, which is technically, I suppose, a sequel to a remake.

Ocean's Twelve belongs to that branch of the heist thriller called the caper movie. The heist movie is essentially about desperate men from the world of professional crime combining their various skills to plan and execute a large-scale robbery. Through movies like The Killers, Criss Cross and The Asphalt Jungle in the postwar years, it became a genre and was essentially moral and political in character.

The caper movie, however, is amoral and apolitical. It belongs to the lighthearted side of fictional criminality, harking back to the British gentleman thief Raffles and his continental counterpart, Flambeau, the French quarry of Chesterton's Father Brown. Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack in their first collective movie, Ocean's 11 in 1960, defined the caper movie; the style is cool and ironic, the characters are charming and eccentric, the objective (beyond making a lot of money quickly by a demonstration of sharp-wittedness) is to mock respectability and hypocrisy rather than to expose fault lines in society.

Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven was superior in most ways to the 1960 picture (inferior perhaps only in that Angie Dickinson is more alluring than Julia Roberts, though this is a matter of taste). The sequel begins after an informer has told chilly Las Vegas casino owner Andy Garcia that the gang that took millions of dollars from his impenetrable vault was led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney), and he demands its return with interest, approximately $198 million.

Brief scenes set in the four corners of America and a couple of places in between see the dozen members of the gang reacting to the dread news and then gathering to consider how they can repay Garcia within two weeks. As they're personae non gratae in the States, they must look to Europe for suitable targets, notably Amsterdam and Rome.

Now Clooney, his wife, Julia Roberts, and his second-in-command, Brad Pitt, don't look much like criminals. What they look and act like are cocooned A-list movie stars out for a lark and, at one point, the plot turns precisely on the character played by Roberts pretending to be the real Roberts to rob an art gallery in Rome.

They confirm the idea that film stars are drawn to this genre because, in their structure, caper movies mirror the act of film-making itself, the only real thing they know and understand. There's no feeling that Ocean and his dismal dozen face a truly lethal threat or, indeed, anything stronger than a lawsuit with a producer or a rift with an agent.

The convoluted plot turns upon Ocean and Co becoming the pawns of ace criminals from Donald Rumsfeld's Old Europe who are setting out to prove their superiority to Danny and his American upstarts. Longueurs occur as the Yanks chat indulgently among themselves or with European chums such as Eddie Izzard, Robbie Coltrane and Vincent Cassell. There are walk-on roles for Bruce Willis (playing himself rather ineffectually) and for Albert Finney (uncredited) and Jeroen Krabbé, both of whom had star roles in earlier Soderbergh pictures.

We also have a subplot borrowed from The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Pitt is the lover of a brilliant Europol detective (a somewhat baffled Catherine Zeta-Jones). Not only is she assigned to pursue Ocean's gang, she's also the white sheep of a dodgy family, her father being a thief of renown.

Ocean's Twelve has a deliberately sinister look, both in its lighting and camera movements, which probably comes from Soderbergh being his own director of photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews).

But, ultimately, it is what Pauline Kael unjustly accused The Sting of being, an empty picture full of self-regarding charmers, 'crooks as sweeties', to quote her words. At the end, you feel as if you haven't been given the real thing and that this is that far from rare commodity today, entertainment as placebo.


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