Ocean's Eleven (2001) was a perfect study in what you might call "manufactured cool." The 2001 remake of the '60 Rat Pack heist comedy was a seamless adult-contemporary entertainment: relaxed, funny, star-studded, tightly plotted, subtext-free, surprisingly chaste, and totally forgettable. It was nakedly designed to line George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh's pockets in part so they could fund more challenging fare like Solaris (2002) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). But even though you could see the sweat forming under everyone's Armani collars while they worked overtime to be "hip," the movie succeeded: Danny Ocean and his menagerie of professional crooks were just too damn likable to write off as mere posers. Of course, history tells us that Solaris and Confessions were art-house failures, and so now we have Ocean's Twelve (2004), a sequel that amplifies its predecessor's strengths and weaknesses while still succeeding on the strength of its characters. The movie's an incredible exercise in style a real movie-lover's movie, more relaxed and playful than Ocean's Eleven but it also tells a shaggier, less focused story, one that may test the patience of viewers hoping for another thrilling heist. As you may recall, in the previous installment Danny (Clooney) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) and their ten well-cast assistants (including Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, and Don Cheadle) had stolen an unfathomable truckload of money from the Bellagio casino even as Danny stole his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from the casino manager (Andy Garcia). Ocean's Twelve begins with Garcia, tipped off by a mysterious third party, quietly tracking down and confronting every single team member, demanding his money back with interest. Initially, this all feels a little drab: Debt service simply isn't as sexy as a casino heist, even when the debt is $19 million per person. But as the team reassembles in Amsterdam and plans a series of smaller heists over several weeks, the story slowly comes together and takes on more thrilling dimensions. Soon, Danny's team is in a race against a competing thief called "The Night Fox" (Vincent Cassel), even as they're chased by a master detective (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who also happens to be Rusty's ex-girlfriend.
* * *
It's all played very loosey-goosey, with entire plot threads coming to nothing (as when the team's Chinese acrobat, played by Shaobo Qin, is briefly stuffed into a piece of misplaced luggage). Both Reiner and Mac wander in and out of the movie like special guest stars with prior commitments, putting more (and possibly undue) attention on secondary heist-team members like Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. Also, a few too many scenes and plot machinations many of them involving the Pitt/Zeta-Jones relationship frankly don't make a lot of sense after even the slightest scrutiny. In the hands of lesser filmmakers and actors, Ocean's Twelve would probably fall flat on its ass. But it doesn't. This is thanks almost entirely to the actors who have, to a man, perfected an infectious, improvised patter that suggests they were cracking up every time the cameras stopped rolling. Damon is in particularly fine form as the gang's junior member, nervously demanding "a more central role" even as he's completely flummoxed by Pitt's cryptic cool. The cast even makes a scene that sounds incredibly stupid and self-referential on paper recruiting Danny's wife to impersonate a major movie starlet into one of the funniest parts of the movie. Kudos also to director Soderbergh, who plays with film grammar here with nearly the same verve he brought to Out of Sight and The Limey. Ocean's Twelve was, hands-down, one of 2004's best-shot movies a handheld ode to New Wave cinema that jumps playfully through time and space. (Soderbergh even finds a new way to shoot a plane taking off, tilting his camera on its side.) Is it style over substance? Absolutely. But as with Ocean's Eleven, style wins only just barely this time around. Warner's DVD release of Ocean's Twelve features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Should we expect a special edition before long? The only extra on this release is the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.