When Steven Soderbergh made ‘Ocean’s 11’ in 2001, he was on a roll. After nearly a decade in the wilderness following his acclaimed debut ‘sex, lies and videotape’, he’d come storming back with uber-cool Elmore Leonard adaptation ‘Out of Sight’ in 1998, followed in rapid succession by ‘The Limey’ (still criminally underrated), ‘Erin Brockovich’ (a potential courtroom yawnfest that Soderbergh somehow made compelling*) and the multi-layered Oscar-winning ‘Traffic’.
Now I love all of those films, and it can be argued (quite easily it the case of, say, ‘Traffic) that all of them have more depth, more interest, more idiosyncracies – hell, just plain more to write about – than ‘Ocean’s 11’. In fact it wouldn’t be difficult to make a case for ‘Ocean’s 11’ as an incredibly entertaining but ultimately generic remake, file it under “style over substance” and move on.
But I would pick ‘Ocean’s 11’ over its stable mates any day. Several reasons.
It’s a pitch-perfect example of pure mainstream entertainment. You don’t need to think about it too much. You can kick back with a bowl of popcorn, crack a beer, relax and let 100 minutes of cool wash effortlessly over you. There’s plenty of films that fulfil the “pure entertainment” remit – most of them, in fact – but precious few that still manage to be supremely well-made and not insult the intelligence.
It improves on the original immeasurably. Lewis Milestone’s 1960 film was a ‘Rififi’-style crime caper teaming the Rat Pack with Sixties stalwarts Angie Dickinson, Richard Conte, Cesar Romero, Akim Tamiroff and Henry Silva; a classic in the making … or would have been had Milestone been able to shoot the film he wanted.
Sinatra and co. all had big room gigs at Vegas during the shooting and this, rather than the film, became their principle focus. Then there was the partying. We’re talking about the Rat Pack, after all. In Vegas. Analogy: imagine you’ve cast Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris in a movie shot around a brewery. How much usable footage do you think you’d get in the car each day of shooting?
Between his stars not turning up on set, and throwing out the script in favour of jokey ad-libbing when they did, the first ‘Ocean’s 11’ lost its chance at greatness. It’s still good fun, but a shroud of “what if” hangs over it.
Soderbergh, however, didn’t have such problems. The script for his version – by Ted Griffin – was tight as a snare drum (the reason there are no deleted scenes on the DVD is that everything slid together so perfectly: nothing about the script was redundant) and zinged with cool dialogue. The cast is top-notch: George Clooney**, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia (doing his best work in ages), Elliott Gould (ditto), Carl Reiner and Julia Roberts (the “introducing Julia Roberts” credit at the end is priceless). The second tier shine: Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison hold their own against the big names.
Music, cinematography, production design, editing (want a masterclass on how to use a segue? watch this film) … everything melds smoothly and seamlessly.
I’ve used the word three times already, and it’s a tool of both the stoner and the lazy writer, but there really is no other way of describing ‘Ocean’s 11’: it’s cool.
Suavely, stylishly, seriously cool.
*As well as getting a career-best performance from Julia Roberts.
** ‘Ocean’s 11’ was the second of his six – so far – actor/director collaborations with Soderbergh.