Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

English Title: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: Warner Bros, Jerry Weintraub Productions, Section Eight, WV Films II

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Producer(s): Jerry Weintraub

Screenplay: Harry Brown , Ted Griffin , George Clayton Johnson, Charles Lederer , Jack Golden Russell

Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh

Art Director: Keith P Cunningham

Editor: Stephen Mirrione

Runtime: 116 minutes

Genre: Crime

Starring/Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Elliott Gould, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts

Year: 2001

Volume: American - Hollywood

Con-artist Danny Ocean, released from prison on parole, begins planning an audacious robbery of three Las Vegas casinos owned by the notorious Terry Benedict. Ocean assembles a team of specialists, including fellow con artist Rusty Ryan, pickpocket Linus Cadwell, veteran Saul Bloom, Cockney safecracker ‘Basher’ Treadwell and Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin. With financial backing from former casino boss Rueben Tishkoff, who bears a grudge against Benedict, the team decamp to Vegas to prepare the heist. The plan is compromised when Ocean’s ex-wife, Tess, now Benedict’s girlfriend, appears, revealing Ocean's true motivations. When Ocean risks blowing the job after making his presence known to Benedict and Tess, Rusty sidelines him and takes the plan forward. The robbery takes place on the night of a high-profile boxing match, and a range of hi-tech devices (including an electromagnetic ‘pinch’ used to induce a citywide powercut) combine with low-tech disguises and physical dexterity to gain access to the well-defended vault. Meanwhile, Ocean schemes to get back in the action, while simultaneously engineering a plot to win back Tess.

With Ocean’s Eleven (2001) it was Soderbergh's turn to deliver another slick and starry piece of entertainment. With the film going on to earn half a billion dollars, it marks the point at which one of the key film-makers of modern independent American cinema established a place with the very top echelon of Hollywood directors. A withdrawal from the overt experimentation and political comment of Soderbergh’s previous and subsequent films, Ocean’s Eleven instead sticks closely to the amoral pleasures of the caper movie: the light hearted sibling of the darker, more existential heist film.

While it is often indulgent to view a film as a metaphor for its own construction, with Ocean's Eleven it seems irresistible. A project leader with a vision for the whole job engages a charming leading man, and financial backing, then builds a crew of technicians and artists, even a stunt man. Ocean’s plot requires rehearsals, set construction, special effects and costuming, and depends on creating a convincing illusion of reality for its audience – in this case, casino boss Terry Benedict and his luckless security team. One early joke, where Ocean’s impassioned pitch to Rusty Ryan gets the response, ‘you’ve been practising that speech, haven’t you?’ foregrounds the film’s ongoing theme of performance. The heist itself requires almost every gang member to assume a character, don a costume and act out a pre-scripted scene; to this end Soderbergh has fun putting Brad Pitt in a nerdy wig and glasses. As the film progresses it seems we stop watching characters and become more aware of a gang of actors good-naturedly riffing off one another rather, again highlighted by a peculiar scene where a group of TV actors including Joshua Jackson, Topher Grace and Holly Marie Combs appear, as themselves, to learn poker from Pitt’s character – cameos that seems pretty pointless when you already have George Clooney and Brad Pitt essentially playing themselves in the same room.

Indeed, the personal charm of the stars is a key ingredient of the film, asking us as it does to sympathize with a gang of career criminals. Ted Griffin’s script dodges many qualms by establishing the crew as con men, often the most sympathetic movie criminals as, in movies from The Sting (1974) to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), the audience roots for their quick-witted intelligence against the gullibility and greed of their victims. Care is taken not to trouble the audience with the moral- and existential quandaries of the heist movie genre (issues that would otherwise be swept away, as they were in the Sinatra version, by not allowing the gang to get away with the money). The film is machine-tooled to entertain. Griffin and Soderbergh move the story along at a fair pace. Traditionally, the caper movie explains the plan in detail early, and then pushes the team as close to disaster as possible. Instead, Griffin ditches much exposition in favour of staging the narrative as a continuing series of surprising reveals, with the full mechanics of the plan unclear to the audience until the denouement. Considering Ocean is our key point of identification, it seems a cheat that he conceals so much from the audience, seemingly able to pull solutions out of a hat at will, and the main ploy of the film-makers is to continually outwit and blindside the audience rather than create any genuine tension or suspense, as none of these little twists ever seriously risks derailing the plan.

There is nothing that matches the acrobatic scene in Topkapi (1963), or the iconic Mini Cooper chase in The Italian Job (1969). A lot of the plot relies on almost magical and effortless use of high tech. Of course, the relentless advance of security technologies mean any modern robbery narrative inevitable becomes a species of techno-thriller, and Soderbergh cannot escape the regulation scenes of characters staring into security monitors (the act of viewing such images becomes essential to the plot on a number of levels). But the resources the team employ, including an electromagnetic bomb, radio control vehicles, and the effortless commandeering and subversion of the casinos’ CCTV systems, stretches and snaps any credibility, especially when contrasted against the three previous failed robberies, replayed in stylized flashback, which consisted of no plan more elaborate than grabbing the cash and running for the door.

But the technique Soderbergh uses to buy off, if not suspend, our disbelief is the constant jokey tone, disarming us of any ability to take the film at all seriously. In this he obviously draws inspiration from his hero Richard Lester. The film features sight gags, flashy edits, comic non sequiturs, and ironic, knowing dialogue familiar from much of Lester's work in the 1960s. Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer and frequently uses the garish colour schemes motivated by Las Vegas’ neon lighting to splash strong colours across his mise-en-scène, creating effects that reflect the haphazard nature of improvised incidental lighting as well as creating a colourful, impressionistic style. It seems that what Soderbergh found in the Nevada desert was an outlet for that same desire the city of Las Vegas seems to express in and of itself: the need to constantly dazzle us while never risking distracting us with anything remotely substantial.


Author of this review: Dylan Pank