Ocean’s Eleven: Soderbergh’s Remake of the Cult Movie Starring the Rat Pack

Soderbergh’s eagerly-awaited Ocean’s Eleven i a semi-successful, sporadically entertaining update of the cultish 1960 heist movie. Commercially speaking, with such glorious cast, catchy poster (that imitates the art work of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and juggernaut marketing (with the entire ensemble appearing on the Barbara Walters, Oprah, and other high-profile US TV chat shows), this Ocean’s Eleven can surely do no wrong.

Warner’s early holiday release should easily cross the $100m mark, and should make off with even more in foreign territories and ancillary markets. That said, regrettably, Ocean’s 11 is a rather flat, retro cool movie that many more viewers will be anxious to see than actually enjoy.

Just like the original Lewis Milestone’s film, which was built around the charismatic appeal of the notorious Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford), the new film is very much structured as a glossy, old-fashioned star vehicle–a throwback to Hollywood’s yesteryear–headlined by George Clooney, Brad Pit, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, and, most disappointingly, Julia Roberts, in a pedestrian reworking of the role that Angie Dickinson so alluringly originated.

Since the material was not terribly fresh (to say the least) even by standards of 1960, screenwriter Ted Griffin was faced with the tough challenge of maintaining what was good about the Milestone version and at the same time update the narrative and characterizations so that they appeal to young, contemporary audiences.

As a result, Griffin has chosen to emulate not just the original picture, but also classic American prison-escape adventures such as The Great Escape, The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen and particularly The Magnificent Seven;in fact, Ocean’s Eleven might just as well have been titled “The Magnificent Eleven” due to its gorgeous looking cast. Additional artistic influences, on both Griffin and director Soderbergh, include the 1973 Oscar-winning The Sting (featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and the 1958 Italian classic, Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal On Madonna Street, with the younger Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni.

Stepping into Sinatra’s famous part (a role in which the late Steve McQueen would have been perfect had the movie been made in the 1970s), Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a dapper, shrewd con man, who, less than a day after his parole from a New Jersey penitentiary (the film’s first scene), is already planning his next big scheme. Three rules govern Danny’s “code of ethics”: Don’t hurt anybody, don’t steal from anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and always play the game as if you’ve nothing to lose. It’s with a characteristic nonchalance that Danny applies these norms to orchestrating what’s meant to be the most sophisticated and elaborate heist in Vegas history: Robbing the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand.

Following the structure of American action pictures, the film chronicles the requisite steps of recruitment for the mission, the detailed planning of the heist, the risky execution with both anticipated and unanticipated mishaps, and a grand finale. It begins with a depiction of how Danny handpicks his crew of 11 specialists, a strategy that allows each character to have one big scene–the equivalent of a theatrical entrance–as well as providing the viewers sufficient time to spot the star and marvel at his idiosyncratic quality.

The chief band members include Rusty Ryan (Pitt), an ace card sharp who’s Danny’s confidante and right-hand man; Linus Caldwell (Damon), a bright master pickpocket but a newcomer with a legacy to live up to (Pitt); Basher Tarr (Cheadle), a colourful demolition genius; and Livingston Dell (Jemison), a surveillance specialist whose uncontrollable anxiety threatens the very success of a heist that involves stealing over $150m from the Vegas casinos.

As was the case in the glossy crime-gangster bio-picture, Bugsy (starring Warren Beatty), the most splendid vignettes belong to the old-time characters–and actors. Hence, an ostentatiously dressed Elliott Gould excels as Reuben Tishkoff, the former Vegas hotel kingpin, who is unceremoniously muscled out by Terry Benedict (Garcia), embodying a new type of slick and ruthlessly shrewd entrepreneur who owns the casinos. Veteran comic-director Carl Reiner shines as Saul Bloom, the ulcerous old pro, brought out of retirement to play a crucial role in the heist.

In the name of political correctness that dictates cultural diversity, Soderbergh balances well the crew in terms of age, generation, and race. If Tishkoff and Bloom are almost by necessity “too Jewish” in look and outlook, Benedict represents the Latino element, and an Asian, Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin, makes his film debut as Yen, the crew’s remarkably agile “grease man.”

The weakest piece of casting is represented by Julia Roberts, as Tess, Danny’s ex-wife, who has rebuilt her life in the wake of his arrest, working as the curator of the Bellagio art gallery–and dating Benedict. Though her part is small (about three short scenes), Roberts looks tired, bored, and unglamorous, and the fact that there’s no chemistry between her and an amorous Clooney makes things worse.

The whole subplot of Danny engaging in the heist in order to regain his old flame is disappointingly vapid, despite Soderbergh’s honourable intent to revive the cheerful spirit of all those lovable Hollywood screwball “comedies of remarriage,” the best examples of which are still Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell) and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (Grant again, with Katharine Hepburn). In aspiration rather than execution, the whole movie owes more than a bit to the notable Hawksian sensibility, as manifest in his male-camaraderie pictures, such as Rio Bravo.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between Soderbergh’s version and the original film, which was just as lazy and rambling. As co-written by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer, the original, just as the remake, labours under the handicaps of a highly contrived, basically senseless yarn. Both productions are deliberately paced, taking their time in delivering their points, and seeming unconcerned or unbothered by their hackneyed plots.

However, the original film contained an amusingly ironic (anti) climax that’s not as effective in the update. Produced in 1960, the Milestone’s version reflected the zeitgeist, specifically the historical beginning of Vegas as the new crass American capital. Moreover, the story’s flippant attitude toward crime and its amoral ideology were rather new and even shocking back then. But four decades later, Las Vegas has been so much used as the site of crime pictures (Bugsy, Casino) that the novelty of this uniquely American locale has worn thin, not to speak of the fact that deep cynicism and both immoral and amoral climate have dominated American movies since the Vietnam War; this may all change as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks.