Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Director: Steven Soderbergh                             Writer: Ted Griffin
Film Score: David Holmes                                 Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia

As bad as the original Ocean’s 11 with the Rat Pack was, that’s how good this remake is. Interestingly, there have been a bunch of these types of turnarounds in the last twenty years, the James Bond film Casino Royale transformed the original Peter Sellers comedy into a terrific action picture, The Italian Job became a tremendous caper film after updating the abysmal attempt at comedy with Michael Caine in the late sixties, and of course, there is the incredibly satisfying Ocean’s Eleven. The screenplay by Ted Griffin, who would go on to pen another magnificent caper film the very next year, Matchstick Men, is nearly flawless. The plot is clever without being cute, the dialogue witty without feeling forced, and the caper complex without cheating the audience. Because of that, it rewards repeat viewings because the clues are there without giving things away. Steven Soderbergh, whose previous two films had been Erin Brockovich and Traffic, was at the peak of his form and the perfect director for the material. To make sure he captured exactly what he wanted on film, he also acted as his own director of photography. Finally, the cast could not have been better chosen. Soderbergh and Griffin both realized that in order to make the ensemble as strong as possible they needed to have a major star in every part. But the end result is more than just a great caper film. There’s the high-stakes game of intellect between the protagonists and antagonist, the camaraderie among the crew, and the love story that doesn’t even know it is one, all of which carries the viewer away on an incredible ride.

The film opens with George Clooney as Danny Ocean up for his parole hearing and being released from a New Jersey prison. Once out he immediately goes to Atlantic City to recruit his inside man, casino blackjack dealer Bernie Mac, then heads out to L.A. to team up with his old partner Brad Pitt. Together, the two of them go to Las Vegas moneyman Elliott Gould, and it doesn’t take much convincing to get him to join them in attempting to steal a hundred and fifty million dollars from his enemy, rival casino owner Andy Garcia. The heist concerns a vault located below the Bellagio hotel and casino, which also holds the money from the two other casinos Garcia owns, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. The rest of the crew consists of brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan who are professional drivers and serve a number of functions during the caper playing various anonymous employees of both the casino and Carl Reiner, their front for the operation. Eddie Jemison is the electronics man, who hacks into the casino’s security system to get access to the surveillance cameras, and Don Cheadle is the British explosives expert who blows the safe. The cinematic unknown of the group is Shabo Qin as the “grease man,” the guy who can get in and out of small places. Finally, they need a good pickpocket and Clooney goes to Chicago to recruit Matt Damon. With the team in place, they head to the Bellagio to set things in motion. The only snag comes when Pitt discovers Julia Roberts, Clooney’s ex-wife and Garcia’s current girlfriend, and questions the leader’s motives.

The caper itself, as in all such films, only works by keeping crucial information from the audience. But the clues are there. One of the first is in explaining the reason for constructing an identical vault to practice on, when Clooney hints that this is only one of the uses it will have. There is also the mysterious pine tree air freshener hanging in one of the vehicles, though that isn’t really a clue. Soderbergh had already directed a far less successful caper film with Clooney and Roberts in Out of Sight a few years earlier, but would earn an Academy Award for Traffic just the year before this film was produced. He worked closely with screenwriter Ted Griffin during production, as the writer stayed on the set to help out with re-writes and script changes. In addition to the intricacy of the plot, the story is also loaded with humor, beginning with the almost elliptical relationship between Clooney and Pitt, to the point where in one scene between them Pitt doesn’t even talk. There’s also a terrifically funny scene early on with Pitt teaching twenty-something actors--all as themselves--how to play poker. Unlike a lot of similar films, there is almost no violence. The only person who gets shot is in a flashback scene showing a thief from the eighties. In some respects this could be seen as a minor flaw in the film, because if feels as if there is very little at stake for the perpetrators other than jail time. But then that’s what makes it so fun. Andy Garcia is perfect as the villain, and in some ways helps distract the audience from focusing too intently on how the Eleven are going to pull off the robbery. Ocean’s Eleven may have a dubious pedigree, but it’s difficult to think of a film from the last twenty years that is more fun and entertaining.

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