Ocean's Eleven (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The good news is that the 2001 version of Ocean's Eleven represents one of the rarest of Hollywood rarities: a re-make that is actually better than the original. That's not to say that this motion picture is an unqualified success - one tends to expect a little more from a director of Steven Soderbergh's caliber. However, 2001's Ocean's Eleven moves along at an enjoyable clip and relies on more than the notoriety of its stars to pack movie theaters. The 1960 original was a sluggish, unimpressive caper comedy that is best remembered as being the first time the so-called "Rat Pack" (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr.) appeared together on screen. The "event" didn't require much else, resulting in a meandering film that fell short in the areas of plot, character development, humor, and suspense. When producer Jerry Weintraub, director Soderbergh, and actor George Clooney elected to re-make Ocean's Eleven, they rectified some of the earlier movie's glaring faults. So, while this is a re-make in the sense that it borrows the 1960 picture's title and premise, there are many, many differences, almost all of which represent improvements.

Ocean's Eleven is an entertaining but unambitious endeavor that combines traditional caper rhythms with comic riffs. Compared to another of 2001's pretzel-plot crime movies, David Mamet's Heist, Ocean's Eleven comes across as diluted. Both films are plot-driven with little room for the actors to do more than look good and project their personalities. Nevertheless, the protagonists in Heist are better fleshed-out (possibly because there are fewer of them), and, while Ocean's Eleven contains its share of nicely-crafted lines for the actors to chew on, the dialogue here never comes close to what Mamet scripted for his outing.

George Clooney, he of the great smile and unforced charm, plays Danny Ocean, a con-artist and thief who is planning his next job the day he gets out of a New Jersey prison on parole. For Danny, this is the big one: a three-casino robbery that will net more than $150 million. Even dividing the total take by eleven (the number of participants), the payout per person is enormous. Danny's crew consists of right-hand man Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), inside man Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), British bad guy Bashir Tarr (Don Cheadle), pick-pocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), veteran con man Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), moneybags Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould), dueling brothers Turk and Virgil Malloy (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck), electronics expert Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), and contortionist/gymnast Yen (Shaobo Qin). Their goal is to liberate the financial resources of the trio of Vegas casinos run by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) on the night of the Lennox Lewis-Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight battle. Since the money from the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand is all stored in the Bellagio's vault, only a single robbery is necessary. There are some obstacles - a "security system [that] rivals that of most nuclear missile silos", countless surveillance cameras, a secure elevator with multiple safeguards against unauthorized entry, armed guards, a vault door that may be impregnable, and Danny's ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), who is currently Terry's girlfriend.

The movie provides an engaging two hours that develops in exactly the manner one would expect from this sort of production. The storyline, while certainly not a masterpiece of plotting (there are numerous holes, some of which are rather large), offers enough to keep audiences guessing and to inject a little tension into an otherwise harmless and lightweight enterprise. There are also sufficient moments of comedy to maintain an upbeat tone. I don't think I ever let out a hearty guffaw, but I chuckled on a number of occasions. And, of course, there are plenty of familiar faces, starting with Clooney and Brad Pitt in the lead roles, and going all the way down to Julia Roberts in a rare supporting performance. It's a mark of how respected Soderbergh is that he was able to get so many name performers to accept pay cuts. Then again, several of the participants, including Clooney (Out of Sight), Roberts (Erin Brockovich), and Cheadle (Traffic), have worked with him before.

The average viewer's appreciation of Ocean's Eleven will be influenced by expectations, and, in the case of older attendees, memories of the original. Those anticipating something with the hard-hitting impact of an Erin Brockovich or Traffic will be disappointed. For Soderbergh, this is not a quest for the Best Picture Oscar that eluded him last year - it's an attempt to craft a popcorn movie. Of course, there's a world of difference between an accomplished popcorn movie like this one and one that's oversalted. This is probably about the best anyone could do with Ocean's Eleven. The high-wattage star power and unpredictable plot should give it healthy box office splash before it sinks beneath the waves made by the other December 2001 contenders.

Ocean's Eleven (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2001-12-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1