M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Usually only the best movies get remade, but if truth be told, the original Oceanís Eleven isnít a very good movie. Lewis Milestone (of All Quiet on the Western Front fame) directed it with virtually no feeling at all for Las Vegas. Itís maybe the dullest, flattest-looking Vegas movie ever made. And it was acted with little vigor by the Rat Pack cast, who deliver amazingly stiff performances, especially Frank Sinatra who seems to sleepwalk throughout the movie.

Iíve always wondered why filmmakers donít try to remake movies that were flawed in the initial go-round. Most remakes are somewhat irrelevant because the original movies still work quite well. By remaking the Rat Pack version of Oceanís Eleven, however, director Steven Soderbergh gets to address some of the flaws in the original movie, and he delivers a much-improved vision of this Vegas heist tale.

Soderberghís movie is filled with energy and wit. Vegas lives and breathes in Soderberghís film, whereas Milestoneís film delivered little more than a picture postcard vision of (arguably) the worldís most exciting city. Gone is the heavy-handed bravado of a bored Rat Pack going through the motions of making a movie. And in its place, we get a group of actors who are infinitely more fun to watch. The Rat Pack may have been fun to watch on a Vegas stage, but the movie-making process is notoriously boring for actors. And that boredom showed through in virtually every frame of their movie.

Soderberghís Oceanís Eleven places two of Hollywood's most exciting stars at the center of the dramaóGeorge Clooney and, no, not Julia Roberts, but Brad Pitt. Yes, Julia Roberts is on hand in a supporting role, and yes, she does play an important function in softening the male machismo to a tolerable level. But this is largely a buddy movie, with a team of eleven men working together against absurd odds to pull off the crime of the century.

Danny Ocean (Clooney) is the mastermind. In the movieís opening scenes, heís still in prison, sitting before a parole board, who ask him what heíll do when he gets out. Ocean sits quietly Ė without the faintest idea what to say. Heís a career criminal who only knows crime. Heís already planning his next heist. As soon as heís released from prison (why they ever release him after his complete inability to answer the parole boardís questions with anything even remotely resembling a sincere response is anybodyís guess), he starts rounding up the team members and the funding to tackle a heist to end all heists: he plans to rob three Las Vegas casinos simultaneously. By no small coincidence, these casinos are all owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) Ė who just so happens to be now dating Oceanís ex-wife, Tess (Roberts).

So early in the movie, we see that this isnít just a heist. Itís a means for Ocean to settle a score and possibly even win back the woman he still loves. And that makes him likable. He isnít just a handsome face and a charming smile. Heís redeemed to a certain extent by his capacity for love. Clooney will never have the same star power as Frank Sinatra, but heís an infinitely more interesting actor to watch on a movie screen. Heís like a more down-to-earth (i.e., working-class) version of Cary Grant.

Brad Pitt plays Rusty Ryan, Ocean's right-hand man. Ryan doesn't believe Ocean's plan is feasible, but he's eager to escape his current career as a poker teacher for teenage actors. After a teaching session, he says, "That was the longest hour of my life."

Rounding out Ocean's crew are Matt Damon (in a curiously subdued role), Don Cheadle (sporting a strange British accent), Elliott Gould (acting with renewed vigor as the heist's financier), Bernie Mac (in excellent form as a card dealer), Carl Reiner (in a wonderfully effective performance as an old con artist called back into service), Eddie Jemison (as a surveillance specialist), Shaobo Qin (as an acrobat/contortionist), and Scott Caan and Casey Afflect (as twin brothers who love cars).

Admittedly, this team doesn't carry the same clout as the Rat Pack crew of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis, Jr., et al., but what this team lacks in terms of cumulative old-fashioned coolness, they more than make up for in terms of playfulness and energy. They bring this remake a completely different chemistry that is less focused on the cult of celebritydom. Their interplay is more natural. They're like characters from a classic Howard Hawks' movie, such as Only Angels Have Wings or To Have and Have Not: they have to work in carefully choreographed unison to accomplish their goal, and much of the pleasure of watching Ocean's Eleven comes from watching as the heist unfolds before our eyes and we see the impossible move toward the possible.

Unlike the frequently mean-spirited action thrillers of recent vintage where human life has little value (e.g., 3,000 Miles to Graceland) no one is even killed in Ocean's Eleven. No one is ridiculed or humiliated. Indeed Soderbergh has crafted a sparkling atmosphere that has nothing to do with the gritty realism of his last movie, Traffic. Ocean and his crew live in a benevolent, comedic universe, and as long as you can appreciate this light approach, you'll have fun watching Ocean's Eleven. It's pure entertainment -- a movie you can surrender to completely.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Ocean's Eleven



Photos: © 2001 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.