Ocean's Thirteen Review
The "Ocean's" series of heist movies goes back to basics for its third entry, Ocean's Thirteen and goes some way towards making up for Ocean's Twelve. While the previous instalment was a tiresome exercise in post-modern smart-arsery, the second sequel is a straightforward, audience-pleasing caper flick that marks a conscious return to the style and format of 2001's Ocean's Eleven.
The story is simple and set up in the first five minutes: one of the gang, the ageing Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) has gone legit and become partners in a new Las Vegas casino-hotel with shady developer Willie Bank (Al Pacino). Bank, a nasty piece of work, has double-crossed him and cheated him out of his share. Now Reuben's in a state of depression the doctors think might be fatal for a man his age.
Reuben's friends and former criminal partners want payback. Ringleaders Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) agree that they should hit Bank where it will hurt most: they'll take his expensive, heavily-mortgaged new casino for half a billion dollars on opening night. To pull this off, they'll need to re-form their old gang; to defeat the casino's artificially intelligent security system, they'll have to come up with a more ingenious scheme than ever before.
The mistake director Steven Soderbergh and his collaborators made with Ocean's Twelve was to stray too far from what made the first movie work. Ocean's Eleven was top class entertainment because of the cleverness of the casino robbery, the suspense of its execution and the pleasure of watching a high-powered cast having a ball playing cool criminals. By contrast, Ocean's Twelve's crime plot was silly and poorly worked out and its stars were wasted on self-indulgent in-jokes such as Julia Roberts' character being mistaken for Julia Roberts. The sequel gave the impression that its makers weren't especially interested in doing a sequel to Ocean's Eleven.
Lesson learned. Ocean's Thirteen goes to great lengths to give the audience that enjoyed the first film exactly what it came to see - a slick, commercial, star-driven thriller centering on an elaborate casino sting. The details of the plot are different enough that you don't feel like you're watching the same movie again but this is an unashamed attempt to re-capture its spirit.
The heist is the whole show this time and it's fun to watch the gang plan it and see it through, even if the details are often difficult to believe. Among the plot holes and credibility gaps: how the hell did they get those enormous drills into the US and underneath downtown Las Vegas unnoticed? Even without the computer system, shouldn't the casino's pit bosses notice a large number of gamblers all winning big at the same time? What exactly is the substance Matt Damon uses to turn Ellen Barkin into a nymphomaniac and where can I get some? Nevertheless, the plot is a whole lot easier to swallow than the previous movie's.
There's no shortage of star power. George Clooney and Brad Pitt put their unflappable, old-school movie star faces back on and this time they don't seem to be coasting. Matt Damon is still amusing as the gang's most inexperienced member and the rest of the crew snatch their moments of screentime when they can get them. Don Cheadle's accent has not improved. Taking the Andy Garcia role, Al Pacino is a much subtler (and quieter!) villain than you might expect and he's pretty effective. Garcia meanwhile has a small but crucial part and he provides some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Also a lot of fun: David Paymer as the worst treated hotel inspector since Fawlty Towers.
Steven Soderbergh keeps his arty pretensions to a minimum this time, returning to the smooth, glossy directing style of the original. Even the look of the movie reproduces the warm, colour-saturated tones of Ocean's Eleven rather than the faded colours of the sequel.
If Ocean's Thirteen still isn't quite in the same league as Eleven, it's mainly because the heist really is the whole show. You're watching a two-hour chronicle of a casino sting without any subplots or distractions. There's no room for romance - Julia Roberts doesn't appear, nor does Catherine Zeta Jones, although Danny and Rusty are apparently still involved with their characters. In fact there's no room for any human relationships or any emotional interest in any of the characters. Perhaps the script intended us to root for poor old Reuben to pull out of his funk but Soderbergh seems embarrassed of this subplot (he's right to be) and he all but throws it away.
The only passion in the film is in its criticism of the way Mexican factory workers who make casino dice are exploited. I'm sure Soderbergh and his writers are sincere but I don't think a big budget Hollywood fantasy about scamming a casino for millions of dollars is the best context in which to attack capitalist greed.
All flaws and quibbles aside, Ocean's Thirteen is a perfectly fine way to waste a couple of hours and it's the best of this summer's blockbuster sequels so far. It's nothing like as overblown as Spider-Man or Pirates and it won't have you looking at your watch nearly so often. It's solid, old-fashioned entertainment and it does exactly what it promises it will.