A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 122 mins.
Danny Ocean: George Clooney / Rusty Ryan: Brad Pitt /
Linus Caldwell: Matt Damon / Abigail Sponder: Ellen Barkin /
Reuben Tishkoff: Elliott Gould / Willie Banks: Al Pacino /
Frank Catton: Bernie Mac / Basher Tarr: Don Cheadle / Terry
Benedict: Andy Garcia
Steven Soderbergh is one of the best American directors of the past 15 years. He has nothing creatively or artistic to prove.
He began his career with such stirring independent efforts like SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE; he’s an Oscar winning director; he made such extraordinary films like TRAFFIC (arguably one of the decade’s best efforts), OUT OF SIGHT (one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations), and SOLARIS (one of the best remakes and sci-fi films of recent memory). He is a filmmaker not inhibited by genre, as his resume clearly proves. He made THE GOOD GERMAN last year, a somewhat disappointing, but miraculous visual odyssey done in the style of a World War II noir. Soderbergh is a director of variety and clear vision.
I guess that I say all of that as a way of coming to grips with my regretful frustration sitting through OCEAN’S THIRTEEN, the third (and hopefully) final film in the OCEAN’S trilogy that began modestly in 2001. The first film, OCEAN’S ELEVEN was a remake of the classic 1960 Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr.) film that managed to achieve the very difficult task of being faithful in tonality to the original but still coming off as fresh and novel.
Watching that first breezy and hip film was an exercise in seeing Soderbergh perform at the top of his directorial game in terms of him demonstrating his command over genre filmmaking. It was also a sincere effort on his part to craft an entertaining, clever, and funny popcorn film, but not without sacrificing his Godardian aesthetic sense. The film worked because of Soderbergh’s command over the material and also in large part because of the insurmountable star power that the film possessed. Part of the fun of watching OCEAN’S ELEVEN was seeing big name actors have fun on screen.
Oddly enough, OCEAN’S ELEVEN was not a stand-alone effort, and a sequel, 2004’s OCEAN’S TWELVE, followed. It was a film that I paradoxically found impressively and stylishly directed, but was lackluster and convoluted in terms of story. The film worked by being yet another consummate bit of big celebrity glamour porn. To watch George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and company return again to see them sink their teeth into wonderful comic dialogue and let their self-indulgent charisma and chemistry with one another bathe the screen was enjoyable. TWELVE, much like its prequel film, exists as a work for the audience to drink up its uber suaveness. The actors’ effortless and charming interplay – along with Soderbergh’s wonderful direction – made TWELVE a noble-minded failure. These are all players with skill and intelligence, which is why TWELVE felt oddly perfunctory.
I felt even more of these vibes while sitting through OCEAN’S THIRTEEN. Make no mistake about it, the film once again displays Soderbergh’s assets in full force. Like the pervious two films, THIRTEEN is a great film to look at in terms of its style and mood - with its great retro score, slick camera work, and a level of precision and timing, Soderbergh again shows himself to be a masterful film conductor. He knows his way through material like this and now that this is his third chance at it with the same actors working in the forefront, there should be little doubt that he could not make THIRTEEN as funny, energetic, and vivacious as its predecessors.
Soderbergh has proven he can film a good remake and has also demonstrated that he can made a efficient heist flick worthy of Rat Pack comparisons. THIRTEEN reminded me constantly of THE GOOD GERMAN in the sense that Soderbergh is a keen and astute scholar of the cinema and knows precisely how to make a film evocative of a time period and genre. The first OCEAN film also subscribed to this notion. I guess that after the redundant sequel that was TWELVE my willingness to see yet another redundant and unnecessary sequel was low. There is only so much ingenuity one can bring to the heist genre. After making one very entertaining film in ELEVEN, I was earnestly hoping that Soderbergh would be adventurous enough to know when to call it quits.
Like the previous entries in the series, THIRTEEN at least does a decent job of developing and setting up the obligatory. All of the principle players are back: we get the group leader, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), Linas Caldwell (Matt Damon), Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), The Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin), Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck), Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), Turk Malloy (Scott Caan), Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), and Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould). The first film had them striking a big score by ripping off Las Vegas casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). The second film saw Benedict discovering all of the groups’ whereabouts and putting a bounty on their heads. Ocean and company needed a new big heist to come up with payoff money for Benedict to leave them alone. In THIRTEEN they – you guessed it – go along for the so-called heist of their lives, but in this case their prize is not money or riches, but revenge.
It seems that there is one pesky, shameless, and egomaniacal casino owner in Vegas named Willie Banks (Al Pacino, looking unusually stiff), who – in the film's opening – royally screws Rueben out of a lucrative deal for running a new hotel/casino. Banks essentially backstabs poor old Rueben out of everything he had. Unfortunately for Rueben, the shock of the double cross is too much to bare and he ends up in the hospital as a result of a heart attack. Sure, Banks may have knocked down the eleven-some that was Ocean’s group by a peg, but he never counted on the rest of them. Danny, being a good and honorable man, vows at Rueben’s hospital bed to seek some serious revenge on Banks and his whole empire.
No, he’s not going to whack him; he has something more inspiring altogether. He has a twofold plan of attack. First, he will crush the hotel-casino’s reputation by plotting an insurmountably difficult scheme of rigging slot machines, card tables...you name it...in favor of the players. This in itself is a Herculean task, and the levels that Ocean and company go to exact revenge is astounding (one of the men goes as far as impersonating a slave laborer and works in the Mexican factories where the casino dice are manufactured). However, Willie ain’t no dummy and he has some of the world’s best computer technology available to spot a cheat from a while away. The computer systems he uses are so advanced in terms of A.I. that they can even pin-point pulse rates in players to see if they are honest or not.
Now, Ocean sees this as a big problem. Alas, he and his posse see a way to overcome this by overcoming the system. A simple power outage will not suffice; the system has contingency plans in effect for such an occurrence. Only an apparent "Act of God" could dismantle it. Rusty, being clever, says they will manufacture one. They decide to buy an large underground drilling machine and use it to set off an earthquake, which will scare away all patrons and shut down the super computer for three and a half minutes.
Hmmmm…I certainly would have liked a scene or two where the film shows us (a) how the boys transported a massive, heavy, mechanical boring machine secretly into Vegas undetected, (b) how they managed to drill without being noticed and (c) how they are able to find a drill seller so incredible fast…but I digress. It seems like this particular aspect of the job would require Ocean's Hundred, not Thirteen.
Problems arise when the drill goes haywire and the gang needs a new one. Realizing that they don’t have the money for one (big surprise) and that time is of the essence, they all go to one man whom they know will have the money to help them with their caper: Terry Benedict himself, their old nemesis. I guess that suspending your disbelief about the boys getting their hands of a vast underground boring machine was huge enough, but believing that the crew would go back to their enemy is an even larger stretch. However, Benedict does not make it easy. He will help them only on two conditions. First, he wants in for $72 million and second he wants Ocean and crew to steal $250 million dollars worth of diamonds from Banks. Yet, he is quick to point out that he does not want the diamonds; he only wishes to see Banks embarrassed and suffering, as do the boys.
I imagine that dissecting the film’s lack of a plausible plot along with its incessant disregard to common sense and logic is beside the point. OCEAN’S THIRTEEN, like the previous entries in the series, are all about eye candy and slick coolness. The film is primarily concerned with immersing us in hero worship of the well-dressed, quick witted, and trendy rogues that Ocean and his group are. Surely, watching Clooney, Damon, Pitt and the rest of the clan is fun, but too much of THIRTEEN is awash in a level of petty casualness.
There is very little in the way of character development in the film; it’s all concerned with character interplay. Plus, we’ve seen that good actors that populate this film can do this material blindfolded with both hands tied behind their backs. There are no doubts that the actors are having fun with reprising their parts for the third time, but they most certainly look bored-as-ever doing so. The film never pauses to develop new character dynamics or to flesh them out any further than they have been. THIRTEEN is a somewhat wasted and excessive exercise in movie star vanity run amok.
I have always appreciated Clooney and Pitt, but they sleepwalk through their performances here. Sure, they are dignified and refined, but they are essentially extrapolating from what worked in the past films. It is equally numbing to see other gifted talent like the great Don Cheedle get sidelined with mechanical and stilted dialogue. Al Pacino himself, who is capable of being an explosive and dangerous screen presence, is kind of feeble as the evil casino owner. He, like most of the other actors, goes through the motions here. He never once seems menacing or truly evil.
Newcomer to the series, Ellen Barkin, (still a beautiful sight) has a feisty spiritedness in her small roll as Wallie’s lieutenant of sorts (she fills the feminine gap left by Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones; their disappearance in this third film is barely alluded to). Only Matt Damon seems to be having any real sense of duty third time out. His Linus is curiously goofy and bumbling compared to the calm, collected, and sophisticated facades of his partners. Damon is always good at light comedy and puts in a respectable effort. I only wish the same were true for all of the other participants.
OCEAN’S THIRTEEN wants to be a supreme implementation of style and movie star power. Yet, coolness is now remorsefully replaced by smugness in this third outing for Ocean’s group of high stakes con men. With a mechanical and predictable plot that sputters along and fails to travel new territory, mawkishly phoned-in performances by most of its leads, and a genuine lack of surprises or intrigue, OCEAN’S THIRTEEN is a rather comatose heist film. It’s not undone by the effort of its director (Soderbergh, to his ultimate credit, never makes the film dull and lifeless to view), but rather its worn out by exhausted characters and material. This ho-hum enterprise does little to take the series in any new-fangled direction. This results in making OCEAN’S THIRTEEN feel like a party with people you liked hanging out with once before, but grew more tired off with each subsequent engagement. Celebrity presence on auto-pilot alone can’t hold a film together. Because of this, THIRTEEN is artificial and intuitively uninspiring fluff. And watching the supremely gifted Soderbergh slum through the same tired material again is like seeing a child prodigy be taken out of his honors studies and placed in a remedial classroom.