Photo Credit: IMDB

By: Andrea Bravo

Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 film “Ocean’s Eleven” turns twenty-one years old on Dec. 7 — in other words, it’s the perfect time to revisit a classic heist film and its underappreciated sequel, “Ocean’s Twelve.” 

The cinematography of the first film is as smooth and effortlessly stylish as its protagonists, con-men Danny Ocean (George Clooney), his partner-in-crime Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and their associates (a star-studded cast that includes Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, and Matt Damon). There’s one particularly good shot in which a crowd of people all turn as one to watch the demolition of a casino behind them — all, that is, except for Danny, an island in a sea of people, his gaze fixed on his ex-wife, Tess (played by Julia Roberts); and Linus, a rookie thief, who is in turn watching Danny. It’s a subtle hint at Danny’s priorities — rather than turning to look at the three casinos he’s about to rob, he watches Tess, which foreshadows what his goal is all along; the heist and the $160 million he’s about to steal are a ridiculously, entertainingly convoluted way to win her back. 

The heist in question, as well as the planning and preparation it takes to accomplish, make up a large part of the film, and the snappy editing ensures the plot never drags its feet. It’s a tightly made film, where all the dialogue and little scenes pay off in the end. Sonderbergh, who also worked as the director of photography for “Eleven,” employs clever transition shots, like a zoom into cotton-candy colored balloons in a car, and then a zoom out of the same balloons, now being carried across the floor of the casino; the titular eleven thieves move like chess players on a board, and we switch from one character to another with comic book panel-esque transitions across the casino floor, or from one scene to another, with elevator doors closing to reveal Reuben’s (Elliott Gould, playing a wealthy casino owner and the heist’s bankroll) over-the-top Las Vegas pool. The film’s lighting revels in artificial colors — Danny, Rusty and the crew are frequently cast in the deep cobalt blues and bright reds of circus tents and Hollywood nightclubs; and the yellow-gold gilded insides of Vegas casinos. 

The dialogue and shot compositions are a master class in showing and not telling — Danny’s first meeting with Tess after spending four years in prison has the camera fixed tightly on their faces, and as the tension in their words increases — “I only lied about being a thief, I don’t do that anymore.” “Steal?” “Lie.” — the closeness starts to feel suffocating.

They talk around whatever it was that happened four years ago, like they want to avoid pressing at a bruise, and just as the heavy, unspoken history between the two becomes almost too much to bear, they’re interrupted, the film cuts to a wider shot of the restaurant, and the audience lets out a breath they didn’t realize they were holding. 

The framing, too, is telling: the estranged Danny and Tess are subtly but firmly divided by the mullions between the window panes of the restaurant. Danny and Rusty, on the other hand, are continually placed together, either shoulder-to-shoulder or on either side of the frame, bookending another character between them. They are visually presented as a team, one so familiar and instinctive that they anticipate each other’s sentences before they’re even spoken. 

Julia Roberts isn’t given much to do as Tess in “Ocean’s Eleven,” and despite her easy chemistry with Clooney, is only opposite him in a handful of scenes, so much of the charm of the movie comes instead from the rapport between Danny and Rusty, who have some of the most amusing exchanges of dialogue in the whole film. Take, for example, the speech Danny gives to Rusty when he’s trying to rope him into the heist of the three casinos: 

“Why not do it [the heist]? …Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you — unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”

This is an impossibly cool speech, smoothly delivered, but the real clincher is the little exchange between Rusty and Danny right after it: 

“Been practicing that speech, haven’t you?”

“Little bit…Did I rush? It felt like I rushed.”

“No, it was good, I liked it.”

It’s a harmless push at Danny’s vulnerability, reminding him how well Rusty can read him, and an admittance of where Rusty’s loyalties lie; he didn’t really need the speech, didn’t need to be talked into the heist, because where Danny goes, he’ll follow, and the other characters know it too. 

One of the strongest points of “Ocean’s Eleven” is how the history between the two, and between the film’s other characters, is alluded to and hinted at, but never directly addressed. Danny and Rusty’s reputation as a team precedes them; when they’re apart, you know the other isn’t far behind — Basher (Don Cheadle) and Tess both ask after Danny when they run into Rusty, and when Danny goes to Frank Catton (Bernie Mac) immediately after getting out of prison, it’s to find Rusty. Take the parenthetical attached to Danny’s conversation with Frank: “(directly, this is why he’s here) You seen him [Rusty]?”

The script cleverly alludes to the history between other characters in the same way; Reuben offhandedly thanks Danny and Rusty for their help with “that thing with the guy in the place,” and we never find out, what, exactly, the thing was, but we know they won his loyalty for it. These are little asides that don’t add much to the overarching plot, but flesh out these characters’ world in a way that makes their relationships seem warmer and more meaningful than a heist movie has any right to be. Danny and Rusty, in their tag-team way of speaking, say to Reuben: “It was our pleasure.” and “I’d never been to Belize.” The heart of the film lies in these moments of purely human silliness, in the inherent vulnerability of having so many years of history with one person. 

It’s also the strongest point of the film’s oft-maligned sequel, “Ocean’s Twelve,” in which both Soderbergh and the Ocean crew are faced with the question — what do you do after pulling off the heist of the century? Soderbergh’s answer is, of course, to have our previously unflappable protagonists fail, flop and otherwise fumble not one, but three smaller heists. Whereas in “Eleven,” we see the thieves at their most smooth, in “Twelve,” they’re left scrambling after Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, the owner of the three casinos they stole from, tracks them down and demands the money back — with interest. This kicks off a terrifically fun montage (similar to one in “Eleven” which introduces the crew) of Benedict threatening each character in turn, as we get to see what the characters have done after pulling off the multi-million dollar heist. 

Like in “Eleven,” Danny and Rusty begin the film separately, with Danny doing his best at domesticity and retirement with Tess in Connecticut; and Rusty running a hotel — badly, and again as a sort of lonely attempt at domesticity. Once they and the rest of the crew reunite, though, the dynamics established in the previous film give us some of the best exchanges of dialogue across all three “Ocean’s” films. Our heroes are on their back foot, and we get to see a new side of them as they try and fail to come up with nearly $200 million in two weeks.

One scene in the first act of the film, where all eleven discuss a plan to steal a valuable document from an agoraphobic collector, is surprisingly funny for a conversation that is juggling eleven different characters at once, and is filmed from angles and perspectives that makes the audience feel almost like they’re part of the conversation. That’s the trick to a good heist film — to make the audience feel like they’re in on the joke — even though, of course, we’re not — the film pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet in the third act of “Eleven,” and too many times to count in “Twelve.”

“Ocean’s Twelve” also introduces the delightful Catherine Zeta-Jones as Isabel, Rusty’s detective ex-girlfriend, and Vincent Cassel as the delightfully insufferable Francois Toulour, a rival thief. The plot is undeniably thin, and the feasibility (or lack thereof) of the heists they pull is made up for by pure shenanigans — how do you get past a moving laser field? With a capoeira dance routine, apparently.

There’s a lightness to the tone that is almost incongruous with the premise — if the thieves don’t come up with the money in two weeks, Benedict has promised to kill them. The nonchalance exuded by Rusty alone is enough to defuse the tension of both films, as even the threat of imminent death or arrest doesn’t stop him from snacking on something in almost every scene he’s in (including, but not limited to: a fruit cup, a lollipop, ice cream, nachos and a shrimp cocktail). 

The film is also experimental in a technical sense, making use of wordless sequences (which wouldn’t work nearly as well without David Holmes’ suave, jazzy soundtrack), one in black-and-white, another sped-up and one scene, in which Danny and the crew are carted off to prison, is made up entirely of crash zooms into each character and set to a dreary violin instrumental. The transition shots in “Twelve” are characterized by an eclectic assortment of fonts, freeze frames of our heroes pulling funny faces, and funky trumpet instrumentals, campy in every sense of the word. That sentiment could be applied to the film as a whole: it’s silly, but somehow it works. 

The “Ocean’s” films are the Mamma Mia films of the heist genre — pure shenanigans with a great soundtrack, funky visuals, and actors that are clearly having a blast, all of which makes “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Twelve” contagiously fun and rewatchable. Perhaps the spirit of the “Ocean’s” movies is best summed up by Terry and Reuben’s discussion at the end of “Twelve” regarding what kind of thief Danny is: “Actually, Danny doesn’t feel like he lost in all this. Hard to believe, but that’s how he feels.”

Maybe that’s how we should approach the films — maybe the money doesn’t matter so much as whether or not we had fun.