Ocean’s Twelve: Soderbergh’s Sequel to Ocean’s Eleven (Weakest Panel in Strategy)

The ad campaign reads, Ocean’s Twelve Is Ocean’s Eleven. But truth to tell, the two movies are different. Overall, Ocean’s Elevan is a better film, but the few parts that work in Ocean’s Twelve, a sharply uneven movie, are funnier and more original.

Soderbergh’s globe-trotting sequel to his 2001 blockbuster is a blend of retro-cool, old-fashioned star vehicle, and postmodern playfulness.  There’s also self-reflexivity in incorporating the stars’ off-screen personas into the narrative in an entertaining way.

That said, I expect the film’s unique qualities to be perceived by most critics as deficiencies, resulting result in divisive response and only middling box-office success.

MGM’s motto More Stars Than There Are in Heaven, applies even more adequately to the sequel than the 2001 picture.  In addition to the original glorious cast, there are two new members, Catherine Zeta-Jones and French thesp Vincent Cassel.

Thus, on one level, the movie is a parade of movies stars, some in their best outfits–just watch Brad Pitt’s elegant wardrobe-others presented in a more down-to-earth way.

Times have changed, fashions have changed, and so do the tastes in movie stars. But, arguably, the new cohort of movie stars is more glamorous and interesting than the 1960s original cast, which consisted of the notorious Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford.

Commercially speaking, with such glorious cast, catchy poster (that imitates the art work of Tarantino’s Reservoir’s Dogs) and juggernaut marketing (the entire ensemble appear on the cover of popular magazines and high-profile TV shows), Ocean’s Twelve may do decent business, but not close enough to the $183 million of the first movie.

Soderbergh, while in Rome promoting Ocean’s Eleven, came up with the idea of setting the story in Europe.  His premise was for Benedict to track all of them down, forcing the team to go to Europe to pull off some heists in order to pay him back.  Significantly, unlike the first film, where the fun was watching them be successful and get things right, in the new one, the fun is watching a story in which everything goes wrong from the get-go.

Producer Jerry Weintraub found another inspiration for the sequel in George Nofli’s screenplay, Honor Among Thiefs, an adventure about the greatest thief in America, beset upon by the greatest thief in Europe. Since the story centered on two main characters, the challenge was to adapt it so that it fits the large ensemble of Ocean’s Twelve.  The tone of Nolfi’s script was similar to that of Ocean’s Twelve, and Griffin wrote a script that catered to the particular actors without being entirely dependant on them.

Bringing together the world’s biggest stars to shoot Ocean’s Eleven seemed a daring, and difficult plan. Reuniting the cast for a sequel–while adding actors to the mix–appeared to be nearly impossible mission. Logistically, it was challenging to coordinate a 77-day shoot for a cast of this size and caliber.

It’s been three years since Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew–fronted by detail man Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), up-and-coming pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), explosive expert Basher Tar (Don Cheadle), and safecracker Frank Catton (Bernie Mac)–pulled off one of the most audacious and lucrative heists in history, robbing ruthless entrepreneur Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of his impenetrable Las Vegas vault.

After splitting the $160 million take, each of the infamous Ocean’s crew have tried to go straight, lay low, and live a legit life–sort of. But that’s proven to be a challenge, much to the chagrin of Danny’s wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), now a presumably happy housewife in suburban Connecticut. When someone breaks Rule Number One and rats them out to Benedict, going straight is no longer an option. Benedict wants his $160 million back, with interest, and further complications occur when Benedict is not the only powerful person looking for Ocean’s Eleven.

Ocean’s Twelve finds Danny Ocean and company at a different place in their lives and careers. However, it’s apparent that even though everyone on the crew is trying to lead a legit life, the members are at their happiest planning and executing a heist. They just need the adrenaline rush, missing from their lives during the past three years.

In the name of political correctness that dictates cultural diversity, Soderbergh balances the crew in terms of age, generation, race, and nationality. Tishkoff and Bloom may be “too Jewish” in look and outlook, Benedict represents the Latino element, and Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin is yen, the crew’s agile man. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a Europol agent specializing at solving sophisticated thefts, and Vincent Cassel, as Francois Toulour, a wealthy European playboy, moonlighting as elusive master thief, known as The Night Fox. Additionally, small parts are played by Brits Robbie Coltrane and Eddie Izzard.

However, as in the 2001 picture, the most splendid vignettes belong to the old-time characters. An ostentatiously-dressed Elliott Gould excels as Reuben Tishkoff, the former Vegas hotel kingpin, and vet comic-director Carl Reiner shines as Saul Bloom, the ulcerous old pro, brought out of retirement.

Produced in 1960, Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s Eleven reflected the zeitgeist, specifically the beginning of Vegas as the new crass American capital. The story’s flippant attitude toward crime and its amoral ideology were new and shocking back then. But four decades later, Las Vegas has been so much used as site of crime pictures, that the novelty of this uniquely American locale has worn, not to mention that cynicism and both immoral and amoral climate have dominated American movies since the Vietnam War. It is therefore refreshing that Ocean’s Twelve is mostly set in Europe: Rome, Amsterdam, Lake Como, Monte Carlo, and Castellamare del Golfo in Sicily.

Since the cast–and the audience–knows the characters well, the movie allows them to push deeper and further, in unpredictable and unexpected directions. There’s little of a conventional plot, but you never know where the story or relationships are going. The film’s fun derives from seeing what each character has done with their share of the money, and to find out who busted them with Benedict.

Ocean’s Twelve shows that Soderbergh has become a more self-assured filmmaker with each assignment. An original yet precise and efficient director, Soderbergh brings to Ocean’s Twelve his ability to serve in multiple capacities, from developing the script to operating the camera. Despite the luminous cast, Ocean’s Twelve looks and feels like a director’s film, one that expresses its creator’s singular vision. Soderbergh is known for balancing meticulous preparation and willingness to improvise; several moments feel spontaneous and improvisatory.

In aspiration and execution, the new movie owes even more than the first one to Howard Hawks’ notably relaxed and laid-back style, reflected in his male-camaraderie pictures, such as Rio Bravo. The directorial treatment is playful and postmodern, and cashing in on the stars’ onscreen and offscreen persona, Ocean’s Twelve unfolds more a comedy than heist actioner.

Frivolous escapism is the rule of the game here, but it’s a smart and jokey. Ocean’s Twelve is brimful of wisecracks, inside one-liners, self-conscious humor, and self-reflexivity about the heist genre and the notion of movie stardom.