Film Review: Oceans 11 (2002)

With the impending DVD release of the 2002 incarnation of Oceans 11, it seems appropriate to take a look back at one of the most eagerly awaited movies of the year

With Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and 'Erin Brockovich sweeping aside all that came before them at last years Academy awards, the world has waited with baited breath for another show-stopper from the man widely regarded as the best contemporary director in Hollywood today.

Early forecast’s suggested that his latest - Oceans 11 - would follow in the footsteps of last year’s blockbusters, but it has failed to receive a single nomination for the 75th Academy awards to be held on 24th March.

Assembling the best ensemble cast of his generation seemed to be a good start. Indeed if there was such a category then Oceans would already be a shoe in for the gong. Relying on a few familiar faces in George Clooney (Out of sight and SS’s partner in production company ‘Section Eight’) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) and adding the talents of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Andy Garcia, Soderbergh has re-envisaged Frank Sinatra’s original ‘rat pack’ from the original and less distinguished Oceans.

The 2002 version can be summed up by the character traits of its leading players; as slick as a Clooney one-liner, as aesthetically pleasing as a Roberts smile and as bouncy as a Pitt chuckle. Oceans will go down as one of the prettiest and smoothest heist movies of all time, which certainly overshadows its predecessor.

The Las Vegas location is perfectly suited to Soderbergh’s fast paced cinematographic style, the bright lights of The Strip acting as an adrenaline shot in the arm of the viewer, which really gets the blood pumping for the impending heist to end all heists.

The question begs however, does Oceans 11’s star driven narrative have the ability to enthrall and captivate in the same was in which Traffic and Erin Brockovich impressed the academy to such an extent in 2000?

The glitz and glamour of Vegas is a far cry from the beginning of the picture in which we first meet an imprisoned and unshaven Daniel Ocean (Clooney) at his parole hearing. Upon his release he encounters old friend and card shark Rusty Ryan (Pitt) and the pitch is made.

The pitch is this. The heist of $160m from an impregnable vault of three Casino’s, protected by an elite team of armed ecurity guards and more camera’s than Kodak. Seems simple enough right? Well add to the mix the devilishly clever Terrence Benedict, (Andy Garcia) the viscous entrepreneur owner of the Casinos and this is surely the impossible job.

So the heist is set, all that is needed is a crew. Enter Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Edward Jemison, Shaobo Qin, Bernie Mac and Don Cheadle (phew…..) to make up the 11.

The plan is elaborate to the extreme and one must marvel at the complexity of what is to take place. While the plan is complex, the plot certainly isn’t. At no point during the narrative does Soderbergh allow the audience to believe that the crew will not pull of the heist, leading to viewer impatience and a willingness for the plot to ‘cut to the chase’ for lack of a better term.

The suspension of disbelief is also tested to the limit here, is it really possible that such an audacious plan could take place, even with the apparent expertise of Clooney and Pitt's seemingly fool proof scheme. With Pitt, Clooney, Damon and of course the fantastic Andy Garcia all putting in stellar performances, it is the rest of Oceans ‘eleven’ which let the side down so to speak. Bomb expert and happy go lucky cockney, Basher Tarr (Cheadle) is ultimately lame and annoying in the utmost, as are bickering twins Turk and Virgil Malloy (Caan and Affleck) who’s occasionally amusing antics do not excuse an otherwise mundane performance.

Enter Julia Roberts to surely save the day for Soderbergh. Given a chance her presence may very well have saved the narrative, but so small is her role we are barely allowed the pleasure of a trademark Julia smile. However she is as always perfect for the role and only accountants would argue with employing the number one leading lady in movie history in such a bit part role.

However small her role, Tess is indeed central to the narrative. As Danny Oceans ex wife and Benedicts new ‘main squeeze’ she acts Clooney’s motivation to hit Benedict’s Casino's taking on the role as the obligatory love element of Soderbergh’s new, mainstream narratives. One of the few twists Oceans 2002 has to offer is the order of preference in which Danny places his priorities - work or love. Oceans 11 will prove ultimately satisfying for a mainstream audience, and the presence of Hollywood heartthrobs Pitt, Clooney and Damon plus a cameo appearance from Lennox Lewis (en-route to losing the Heavyweight championship at the time of filming) will do box-office figures no-harm whatsoever. It is indeed the big players which save the movie, without perhaps the greatest ensemble cast of the last 20 years; Oceans would be as notorious as its 1965 predecessor.

Which also begs the question as to the status of once Independent god Soderbergh who was once awarded the palm d’Or at the 1989 Cannes film festival for his feature length debut, Sex, lies and videotape'. From the utterly obscure Schizopolis to a movie as mainstream and star driven as Oceans 11 is quite a turnaround.

The native Georgian was celebrated as the forefront ‘Indy’ director who had stayed true to the techniques when cemented his Status. A great deal of the acclaim he received for Out of sight, Traffic and Erin Brockovich were due to the smooth transition of his independent style out of the music halls and into to the multiplexes.

It seems that for Oceans 11 he has abandoned his roots and with that his previously unmistakable brand of movie making and now totally completed the journey from Independent auteur to mainstream mogul. Nothing but standard cutting, linear narrative and cheesy gags make up the 90+ minutes of Oceans 11.

However Ignoring the apparent Soderberghsell-out’, Oceans 11 is still a very entertaining movie, not a must see twice movie by any means but still very gratifying. Pitt, Clooney, Damon and Garcia don’t just star in the movie, they save it and should take far more credit for its success than the director.