By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Ocean’s Thirteen” Warner Bros., 2007]
The number one and essentially only question asked of this writer upon the mention that he’d seen the new “Ocean’s Thirteen” is “Is it better than ‘Ocean’s Twelve’?” Not “How is it?” or “How does it compare to the first one?” Just “Is it better than ‘Ocean’s Twelve’?” occasionally followed by “‘Ocean’s Twelve’ stunk.”
Where does the animosity for “Ocean’s Twelve” come from? Critics largely dismissed the 2004 sequel to the vastly more popular 2001 film “Ocean’s Eleven” (itself a remake to the most famous movie from Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack), and audiences didn’t respond as enthusiastically as they had to the original (with a corresponding dip in box office receipts). Even the guys who made the freaking movie have spoken out against it, describing this year’s “Ocean’s” as “the one we should have made last time.”
Is “Ocean’s Twelve” as good as “Ocean’s Eleven?” Of course not. Did you really expect it to be? If so, that’s your fault, not director Steven Soderbergh’s. Watch the movie again, as I did last week, and reconsider it as an exceedingly stylish, beautifully paced, and sometimes shockingly romantic caper movie. While conceding that the plot is a tad on the convoluted side and that the ultimate explanation seems anti-climactic, look again. There’s an added layer to that ending, one that’s never explicitly stated but hanging just below the surface. And, like the first “Ocean’s,” it’s just a whole mess of fun.
Same goes for this latest installment, which once again reteams George Clooney’s dashing Danny Ocean with his ten roguish rogues, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac and the rest. The only no-shows from the previous crew are Julia Roberts (Danny’s long-suffering wife Tess) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Pitt’s love interest from “Twelve”). Their absence is explained away quickly with a few lines of dialogue and they’re supplanted by Al Pacino as evil casino owner Willy Bank and Ellen Barkin as his right-hand woman. Frankly, they’re not terribly missed.
Bank double-crosses Elliott Gould’s Reuben, which sends the rest of the Eleven off on an elaborate revenge plot called a “reverse big store.” Without revealing much (because the core of the pleasure in any “Ocean’s” is the way in which Soderbergh reveals his plot twists), they must jury rig every game in Bank’s brand new casino simultaneously so that it makes all of its customers rich and bankrupts him. Easier said than done or rather it would be if not for the air of insouciance Soderbergh and company leaven into each of these pictures, whereby the most impossible tasks are made to look utterly effortless by Ocean’s impossibly well-styled posse. Things here are easily said and easily done.
A couple of the items in this reverse big store don’t really sell and Soderbergh cheats a bit when he employs a nearly identical twist from “Twelve” in a nearly identical way here (it involves Damon’s character). And it’s hard to argue that “Ocean’s Thirteen” isn’t more clever than smart. But that doesn’t really get in the way of the entertainment value, which is still high.
Even though “Thirteen” is, of course, a large money-making operation &151; one that Warner Brothers hopes will clear more money than even the most lucrative Danny Ocean heist it doesn’t feel nearly as desperately cash-grabby as a lot of the other sequels in this crowded summer marketplace. No sense of sequel fatigue where the characters appear more motivated by the actor’s contractual obligations than by story concerns has crept into any of the performances and Soderbergh continues to use the series as an outlet for his playful side, which tends to make these movies a lot more engrossing than the “important” pictures he makes in between them.
Which is a long prelude to explaining that while “Ocean’s Thirteen” is better than “Ocean’s Twelve,” that’s not necessarily damning with faint praise. This “Thirteen” is better than “Twelve” sentiment is coming from an unabashed fan of “Twelve.” But does the fact that I enjoyed “Twelve” where others didn’t therefore mean that those who didn’t won’t like “Thirteen”? Perhaps that’s best left to the audience to decide for themselves.
“Ocean’s Thirteen” opens wide June 8th (official site).