All three pictures had really big budgets (mostly actors' salaries), the first one was a remake, they had movie stars out the ying yang, and by those criteria should be the kind of thing I use as a straw man in a glass-of-whiskey-in-hand bellicose soliloquy of doom. And yet.
A big budget isn't inherently a bad thing, as long as you're not wasting money. Assembling a cast of movie stars costs money, as does shooting on location in Vegas. The first one was actually fairly economical, featuring no fewer than four actors with eight-figure rates yet costing “only” $80 mil. Considering that it grossed like $500 mil worldwide, that's not a bad cost-to-profit ratio.
Remakes, too, are not inherently bad things, provided that there's a reason to remake the original picture. I submit that an interesting yet flawed movie is the perfect candidate to be remade, and the original Ocean's Eleven fit that bill perfectly. It was made as a vehicle for the Rat Pack, and its Vegas-themed plot was probably thought up by Frank, Dino, Sammy, and company (or on their behalf) as an excuse to get fucked up in Vegas for a few weeks, since that's what they'd be doing anyway even without a movie. The story was twisty, contained an unfortunate downer when Richard Conte dropped dead (the only time it was okay for Richard Conte to get killed was when he was Barzini, and even then you're more like “holy shit Michael Corleone is cold” rather than “hey, fun”) and ends without them getting away with the money.
When it was announced that Steven Soderbergh was directing a remake, the bunch of Rat Pack purists I was drinking with at the time were all scandalized. “How dare anyone meddle with perfection?” said they. “Uh, Ocean's Eleven sucks,” said I. “Fuck you,” said they. “Fuck you,” said I. And so forth. But from the start I was optimistic. Partly because I've always been a Steven Soderbergh fan, since before I even knew what a director did (and because Out of Sight proved fucking A that man can direct a movie star picture) and partly because, I'll admit, I'm a sucker for the right movie star. George Clooney? No defense. Brad Pitt? Even less. Julia Roberts? She seems so nice. Matt Damon? Hell, I'd let him bust my balls about being a Yankee fan. Andy Garcia? Andy Garcia was in The fucking Untouchables, okay? Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner . . . okay, now you're cheating with the character actors. I love character actors even more than movie stars, but both at once is like a shot and a beer.
It occurred to me in one of my more solipsistic moments that the Ocean's movies could have been made for me personally (actually, in that—very high—moment while watching Ocean's Twelve, it occurred to me that they were made for me personally, but that's one of the reasons I don't do the weed anymore). And that's the perfect blockbuster, something that makes you and tens of millions of other people all feel like it was made just for you. And that's why I surrender to Hollywood and say “Well played, old chap, you take this round; my artsy-fartsy little crypto-French auteur pictures that I want to make will show you someday,” and Hollywood twirls its moustache at me and ripostes “Foolish Earthling, Steven Soderbergh makes artsy-fartsy little crypto-French auteur pictures and he works for us now . . . mwahahahahahahahahaha!”
So then, the trilogy:
Danny Ocean (George Clooney; and yes, I am enough of a dork/homo that George Clooney playing a character named Danny makes me all blushy and “oh, stop”) gets released from prison and paroled, under the condition that he engage in no criminal acts. Clooney keeps quiet and immediately goes to bother blackjack dealer Frank Catton (Bernie Mac) at work to ask him where Brad Pitt is, and Bernie's like, “Uh oh, I know what this means, a job is afoot.” Which indeed it is.
Clooney finds a bored and frustrated Brad teaching a bunch of TV actors (playing themselves) how to play cards. Clooney hustles the actors out of a few hundred in pocket change and pitches Brad on the idea—we're gonna rip off three Vegas casinos. Brad is vaguely nonplussed, and pieces it together that they're Terry Benedict's (Andy Garcia's) places.
Clooney: You think he'll mind?See, the observant student of history will note (as Elliott Gould later does) that ripping off a Vegas casino has a fairly high difficulty curve. But observant cineastes will note that fucking with Andy Garcia is fucking retarded. However, observant scholars of masculinity will note that fucking retarded acts are both what make us men and furthermore are awesome, which Brad realizes as he assents (the $150 million is but icing on the cake). He does insist that Clooney exercise some caution, and recruit a large crew—
Brad: More than somewhat.
“—running a combination of cons. Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald . . . ever.” (Ed. Note: Brad admits on the commentary track “I have no idea what I'm talking about right there.”)And the first stage of the picture is given over to the assembly of the crew. First, finance. Here we run into what at first appears to be a plot hole, to wit: in order to rip off $150 million from a Vegas casino, you probably need to spend a massive amount of money in order to do the job right. Two important points obliterate this argument: first, that it's not about the money (it's about revenge, partly, but mostly because a very important element of the male psyche is doing something because you can, and when added with the adrenaline rush attendant to doing something totally fucking retarded, you have a win-win-win situation) and second, what do you, not want to watch a movie about a bunch of guys ripping of a Vegas casino? Fuck off back to your documentaries about soybean farming.
Elliott Gould, as rich guy Ruben Tishkoff, who “owes” Clooney and Brad from “the thing with the guy in the place” (a debt that can, of course, never properly be repaid) is awesome, and reminds our intrepid antiheroes that no one ever successfully ripped off a Vegas casino (in a monologue told in three hilarious flashbacks) before assuring them:
You guys are pros. The best. I'm sure you can make it out of the casino. Of course, lest we forget, once you're out the front door, you're still in the middle of the fucking desert!Clooney and Brad pretend to be chastened and head out, before “accidentally” letting it slip that it's Andy Garcia that they're planning to rip off. Since Andy Garcia muscled Elliott Gould out of Vegas, torpedoed his casinos, and other assorted rudeness, Elliott Gould immediately signs on.
With funding, the most important element, in place, they assemble the rest of the crew. Bernie Mac is already in (to infiltrate as a dealer), so they need to recruit someone who knows how to blow shit up (Don Cheadle, sporting a goofball Mockney accent and a lot of rhyming slang) a con man who's “the best . . . [he's] in Cooperstown” (Carl Reiner, who you better fucking believe is in Cooperstown), two rednecks to cause disturbances (C-Fleck and Scott Caan, who somehow manage to never be annoying in a majestic feat of thespianism), an electronics guy (Eddie Jemison, a movie star due to the fact that he made it through Schizopolis with a straight face), a “grease man” (acrobat Shaobo Qin), and because “you think we need one more? Okay, we'll get one more,” Matt Damon, an ace pickpocket who's the son of an operator Clooney and Brad know and respect.
The team now recruited, we head to Vegas and Clooney lays out the specifics of the plan. Here, another major criticism of the movie, that its central premise is horseshit: Vegas casinos are not required to keep enough cash on hand to cover every bet in play. They keep as little cash around as possible precisely so a bunch of assholes don't show up and rip them off. There's no getting around this fact. However, the kind of person who points such things out probably gets a boner telling kids there's no Santa Claus, which of course means by the transitive property that if you care that the central premise of Ocean's Eleven is bullshit, you're a sadistic pedophile. Glad to help!
Once in Vegas, banter ensues as our merry band of rogues prepares to ram it to Andy Garcia. In the course of preparation, Brad Pitt discovers Clooney's real motivation: Andy Garcia is shtupping Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts is Clooney's ex-wife. Danny Ocean is making it personal, instead of keeping it strictly business. Clooney tries to convince Brad that his primary motivation is the money (and testicular grandeur, naturally) but Brad gets worried and 86s Clooney from his own plan, installing nervous novice Matt Damon in his place. But it turns out that was all just a pretense to get Matt Damon's mind on the job, and he passes the test with flying colors.
The actual heist is incredibly elaborate, really well filmed and edited, total edge-of-your-seat stuff with very few—if any—elements that induce “get the fuck out of here” facepalms. It of course resolves with Ocean's eleven making off with over $150 million, and Andy Garcia accidentally confessing his love of money is greater than his love of Julia Roberts over closed-circuit TV, which means not only does Clooney get the money, he also gets the girl. Which, ultimately, is why one does anything.
Ocean's Eleven, however ambiguous the ending, wherein it's made clear that Andy Garcia's guys are following Clooney and Julia Roberts, is nonetheless about as perfect a Hollywood movie as you can get in this day and age. The one false note is, sadly, Julia Roberts. She's a little clunky with the banter, and the shot where Matt Damon goes “This is just the best part of my day,” where she's walking through the lobby of the hotel isn't as dazzling as it should be. Because the reason Julia Roberts became a movie star in the first place was because she was kind of endearingly awkward, and the part she plays here requires an old-fashioned movie star, not her new-school version. That being said, she's not bad (she certainly doesn't fuck anything up), she's just not perfect like everything else.
So. How to follow up a perfect Hollywood movie, one of the five best remakes ever, a massive hit, and a story with a clear resolution; what are they gonna do, rob Andy Garcia again? Initially, Clooney and Soderbergh were like, no way we're doing a sequel. They went off and said, hey, we remade Ocean's Eleven, that worked, let's go remake a Tarkovsky picture! I was one of about three people who liked their Solaris, but we were also about half the people who bought tickets to it. It was also pretty expensive, even for a relatively inexpensive SF picture, so when it flopped, Clooney looked at Soderbergh and said, “Hey, remember that crack I made a couple years ago about making Ocean's Twelve? Well . . . um . . . we kinda need to make some money.”
Soderbergh was cranky. He wanted to do little experimental pictures like Bubble and big experimental pictures like The Good German. So he bought a spec heist script George Nolfi had written with the intent of selling to John Woo and had Nolfi rewrite it for the Ocean's ensemble. A large reason for picking that particular script was so they could shoot in Europe so Clooney could hang out at his place in Italy and so Brad had easy access to Amsterdam to see how much weed he could smoke before they had to CG out the red from his eyes. In this regard—the reluctance, so many symptoms of creative laziness—it was shaping up to be a typical sequel.
Except another facet of Soderbergh's crankiness was “if the fucking studio system won't permit me, fiscally, to direct the experimental pictures I want to, I'm going to shove an experimental picture up their fucking ass on their dime.” Which is why Ocean's Twelve is one of the most underrated Hollywood movies ever made. It takes the theme from Eleven about the heist not necessarily being the whole picture and runs with it, resulting in a “heist” movie where the crew is foiled in their first heist, pulls a minor second one out of pique, and all get thrown in jail while pulling the main one. They never profit from any of the jobs (and most of them, hilariously, already blew most of their profit from the first movie, and Brad's actually about $12 mil in debt).
On one level, Twelve actually is what all the critics accused it of being: an excuse for the cast to get together, hang out in Europe, and get paid a shitload of money for it. But, check this out: the movie itself is the heist. None of them really wanted to do a sequel for any reason other than getting to hang out together—the original Rat Pack 1960 one was made as an excuse for the cast to hang out, you'll recall—so, why not blatantly make that the raison d'etre behind the sequel, and soak Warner Bros for another $110 mil? Soderbergh gets to fuck around with his non-linear structure and kind of-sort of remake Full Frontal for a hundred times the budget, Clooney gets to hang out at his house, Brad gets to smoke the whole cast up all the time, people like Vincent Cassel and Jeroen Krabbe get to make some Hollywood bank, and in spite of all that it's still fun to watch (my one caveat is that it doesn't get good til the second viewing; the first time I saw it I fuckin hated it).
The plot: Andy Garcia has found Ocean's eleven (him going around and dropping in on the crew serves as the intro this time) and is giving them a deadline to pay back what they stole. The crew, now that word is out about the Vegas job, is “too hot” to work anywhere in sweet home Estados Unidos, and so their only option is to go to Amsterdam (yeah, it's contrived, but I don't give a fuck).
In Amsterdam, Robbie Coltrane gives them a job, in a scene where he, Clooney, and Brad speak in non sequiturs, and poor Matt Damon, not knowing what the hell is going on, recites the first verse of “Kashmir” only to have Clooney and Brad pull him outside and tell him that he mortally insulted Robbie Coltrane's 7-year-old niece. Clooney and Brad go back in and “smooth things out” and the job turns out to be for a mere fraction of their debt to Andy Garcia, which leads to a bit of disgruntled banter and speaking in code to troll Matt Damon (trolling Matt Damon is probably the second-most prominent plot thread in the movie) before they get down to work ripping off agoraphobic antiques collector Jeroen Krabbe.
HOWEVA, when they do, they find an mp3 player with a message on it from a trash-talking Frenchman who identifies himself as the “Night Fox” and leaves a small fox figurine as a memento. They find out that this Night Fox is basically the European version of them: ballsy, slick, fucking amazingly talented, with an Old World hint of mysticism about him. And guess who the world's leading expert on the Night Fox is? Brad's old girlfriend, Europol agent Catherine Zeta-Jones!
Yep, just like Clooney in the first picture, Brad arranges the job so he can cherchez his femme. And yes, normally ripping off the same idea as the first movie for the sequel is stupid, but here it's not, for one simple reason: Catherine Zeta-Jones is fucking staggeringly beautiful.
Just LOOK AT HER. Oh my God that scene in Traffic where she goes “Get out of the car, and shoot him in the head!” That scene in Entrapment where she's slinking through the laser field in that vinyl catsuit! (Both of which are relevant here: the Soderbergh connection from Traffic, and the scene in Entrapment is homaged later. No shit.) Catherine. Just like Sean Connery said when he gave her her Oscar for Chicago. “Catherine.” All true penitents, genuflect now.
Anyway. So yeah, the point is, even Brad Pitt is like, “Man, I shouldn'ta let that one get away” and launches his convoluted plan to get her back. Which is “complicated” by the fact that the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) contacts the crew to inform them that the reason he ripped off Jeroen Krabbe before they could get to it was because some American asshole (played by producer Jerry Weintraub) told the Night Fox's mentor, Lemarcq (the greatest thief in the world) that the Ocean's crew had pulled off the greatest job of all time. Vincent Cassel is not happy with the idea that anyone could be considered better than him, and so he proposes that they prove who's the best by both setting out to steal the same thing, a priceless Faberge egg that Lemarcq once stole but his wife made him give back. Clooney's like “what the fuck is this shit? Not only is this asshole living in my house [Vincent Cassel's Lake Como pad in the movie is Clooney's IRL] but this is the dumbest fucking idea ever.” Only when Vincent Cassel offers to pay off the debt to Andy Garcia if Clooney et al manage to get the egg first does Clooney say, okay.
While they plan the job, they have to assume Vincent Cassel is watching/listening/some combination thereof at all times, so they're a little limited. They contact Eddie Izzard (ah, Eddie Izzard . . . words cannot express how much you rule) to make them a holographic version of the egg, and they fuck around and half of them get arrested by Catherine, leaving Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Scott Caan the only ones on the outside. They meet, and Matt Damon tries to call the proceedings to order, prompting a line from Scott Caan that (for personal reasons) I absolutely love:
“Who died and made you Danny?”Once they sort out the chain of command, Matt Damon comes up with an idea. Danny Ocean's wife Tess has, previously, had it said “Have you ever noticed she looks like . . .?” before someone cuts in and goes “Yeah, but she hates it when you say that” or some such. Matt Damon decides to use the fact that she looks like _____ _______ to their advantage, so they fly Tess to Italy.
Whereupon they call the hotel and tell them that Julia Roberts is arriving. Yes. Julia Roberts, as Tess Ocean, is pretending to be Julia Roberts for the con. You have no idea how fucking happy this makes me. A Hollywood movie that cost $110 million, and they decided to break the Guinness world record for meta. Can I get a hell yes?
Julia/Tess/Julia lands in Rome and has Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Scott Caan pelt her with trivia they've heard about “Julia Roberts,” and she has second thoughts.
Julia/Tess/Julia: It's just wrong!(That last, by the way, is the finest moment of Matt Damon's acting career.)
Matt Damon: You mean . . . morally?
Then, complication arrives in the person of Bruce Willis, playing a decidedly chick-crazy and skeptical version of himself. Julia/Tess/Julia manages to keep the charade going just enough to get everyone to the museum, where it's been arranged for “Julia Roberts” to view the Faberge egg under Catherine's vehement protests. But Catherine's watching over the security camera and sees them swipe the egg, so she swoops in and blows up Julia/Tess/Julia's spot by asking for an autograph that Tess signs with the wrong hand, revealing her to not be Julia. Bruce Willis, thoroughly impressed, tries to pick Catherine up as our heroes are led out in handcuffs, though she's having none of it (despite being determined to lock him up forever, her heart belongs only to Brad).
An American fed (Cherry Jones) turns up to interrogate the crew, starting with Matt Damon. She gets him to “rat” everyone out . . . only to reveal in the cop car on the way out that she's his mom! Leading to the second-finest moment of Matt Damon's acting career:
“You told dad?”BAHAHAHAHAHAHA! So Cherry Jones hustles everyone off the cops' radar, and Catherine (having been fired for falsifying her paperwork) follows in hot pursuit, only to find Brad waiting by a Learjet. He tells her her father (a thief she's long presumed dead, the reason she became a cop) is still alive and waiting for her. She gets on the plane with him.
Cut to Clooney and Julia dropping in on Vincent Cassel. Clooney asks him, “How'd you do it?” and Vincent Cassel answers, well, I snuck past your surveillance team (C-Fleck and Scott Caan, bickering and not noticing anything) to get into the museum. Clooney's like . . . okay, that makes sense. But how the fuck did you get past the laser field in the great hall (i.e. the reason Clooney and company didn't break in themselves)?
Vincent Cassel's answer: I put on my headphones, bumped some French hip-hop, and did capoeira through the randomly moving lasers. Observe. (Yes, that's Vincent Cassel doing his own dubbing into French. He actually, before he got big, was famous in France for dubbing Hugh Grant, in an irrelevant but mildly amusing aside.)
Now, a lot of people thought that scene was stupid. Those people can eat a dick. That scene is fucking awesome. Not only is it awesome, not only does Vincent Cassel's little Gene Kelly kick at the end of the thing put the perfect capper of “even though I don't have an audience, I nonetheless feel the need to show how effortless that was” on the proceedings . . . it's a fucking homage to Entrapment! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! Of all the movies you never thought you'd see an homage to. Entrapment. Oh, man. If I ever meet Steven Soderbergh and/or Vincent Cassel, they're getting a big hug for this scene.
So, after all that, Clooney says to him, “So pay me my money.” Vincent Cassel goes, no, you don't get it, fils d'une putain américaine, that's if you won. You lost. Clooney just folds his arms and smiles his “I'm a bigger movie star than you are, junior” smile. And Vincent Cassel realizes, shit, he's a bigger movie star than I am. And we flash back to Clooney and Brad meeting with Lemarcq like five seconds after they found out who the Night Fox was. Lemarcq tells them that Vincent Cassel is going to propose a wager over the egg, so they have to steal it first (and naturally, give it to Lemarcq, who having stolen it first is the rightful owner, of course). And so we see that the whole fucking thing where they move the egg on a truck with a motorcade is a smokescreen and the way the egg really moves is some French hipster with a backpack taking the train. Matt Damon, carrying an identical backpack, gets on the train and sits close by. Clooney and Scott Caan stage a fight (over wearing Yankees and Red Sox hats, a scene that, hilariously, was shot a day or two after the Yankees and Red Sox had a bench-clearing brawl in real life) and Matt Damon swipes the egg, replacing it with a replica, that was the item Vincent Cassel stole. Devastated, Vincent Cassel kicks them out.
Cut back to Brad (who has the egg) and Catherine. They're arriving at a friend of Brad's place.
Catherine: What's his name?And Catherine's like holy shit. Because Lemarcq is her father. This whole thing was about Brad reuniting Catherine with her father so they could reconcile; the fact that she'd naturally be grateful and fall back in love with Brad as a result is of secondary importance at best. Now, a lot of people felt ripped off when they realized that this was the whole point of the movie, that the whole picture, in fact, was one giant con, on several different metatextual levels. Not me. As a serious intellectual and a committed troll, that kind of thing is a fucking Christmas present for me.
Brad: I don't know, actually. I've only ever known him as [dramatic pause] Lemarcq.
So we all live happily ever after. Long live Ocean's Twelve!
Once again, Clooney and Soderbergh had a flop (The Good German) trying to be all artsy, so once again they said, “Fuck, is this the only thing either of us knows how to make that'll make money?” This time they went about things slightly differently. For one, no one aside from me, my mom, Bryan Enk, and the odd person I meet every couple years or so actually liked Ocean's Twelve, so they decided to make Thirteen as an apology to all those dullards, killjoys, and all manner of other civilians who squinted, bucktoothed, and whined “I don't get it” when they watched Twelve.
Thirteen's good too (though it's not as good as Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, a whole different brand of vodka, to paraphrase Clooney in Eleven) but it has more than a few signs of Advanced Sequel Retardation (recycled tropes, a lot of the characters being in the movie just because they were in the first two, a total betrayal of everything awesome about Vincent Cassel in Twelve, etc etc). It's entertaining, but unlike the first two, it has no claim to be anything other than fluff. Not that there's anything wrong with fluff. (See what I did there? I recycled an old joke, from Seinfeld. And it wasn't funny. The prosecution against unnecessary sequels rests.)
The story concerns nouveaux riche fuckface Al Pacino (clearly enjoying himself) screwing over Elliott Gould in a business deal, causing Elliott Gould to have a heart attack, and the crew to drop everything and reunite by his hospital bed. And, of course, plot revenge against Al Pacino by ripping off his brand-new, state-of-the-art casino. That is, of course, impossible to rip off. Unless, of course, you can fake an earthquake and sneak a magnet into the CPU that runs all the security systems in the place, and rig every game in the place so that they can win non-stop for however long it takes until the computer reboots. Which, of course, costs a lot of money. Thus, inevitably, they have to go, hat in hand to Andy Garcia to help.
Everything progresses with a crisp, economical pace, partly because Julia and Catherine were too busy to show up and do annoying cameos as the girl trying to talk the guy out of doing WHAT MEN MUST DO (Ocean's Thirteen was written by the guys who wrote Rounders, saved from being the worst Annoying Girlfriend movie of all time solely by Matt Damon not ending up with Gretchen Mol at the end; allegedly Gretchen Mol's whole character in that was due to Harvey Weinstein telling them “write a part for Gretchen Mol because I'm fucking her” and them reluctantly agreeing and “inadvertently” turning her into the most annoying pointless character of all time . . . this is just what I heard, it might not be true, but if it is, that makes the absence of girlfriends resonate a bit . . .) Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin are both fun, though Ellen Barkin looks like she ended up on the wrong end of a plastic surgery accident at some point (this actually makes the subplot where Matt Damon seduces her to get access to some room where something they have to steal is a little sad).
It ends exactly like it should, with Al Pacino in disgrace, Elliott Gould avenged, and our protagonists very rich. The very last scene is a nice touch—David Paymer, having played a hotel critic whom our heroes tormented so he'd pan Al Pacino's hotel, takes Brad's advice that he play a particular slot machine in the airport that Brad just rigged and wins an eight-figure jackpot. And so, despite a lot of lazy shit and a whole lotta jokey-jokes, Ocean's Thirteen caps off the trilogy with some goodwill.
Despite its flaws, I think the Ocean's trilogy is something Hollywood can (and should) learn from. They're proof that movie star pictures don't have to be fucktarded, don't need all kinds of ginormous special effects, and that you can fuck around and make an art picture that still functions as a movie star picture. The first, at least, is as good a heist picture as you're ever going to see (I mean, it pales in comparison to The Killing or Reservoir Dogs, but so does every other heist picture ever made), the sequel is just fucking beautiful, and the third one is the single best unnecessary sequel ever made (narrowly edging Lethal Weapon 4). And it can all be summed up by the following exchange between Al Pacino and Clooney:
Al Pacino: This town might have changed, but not me. I know people highly invested in my survival, and they are people who really know how to hurt in ways you can't even imagine.That's the Ocean's gang in a nutshell. They know everyone, everyone knows them and everyone likes them. You know. Movie stars.
Clooney: Well, I know all the guys that you'd hire to come after me, and they like me better than you.