If you’re going to remake a movie, one like the original Ocean’s Eleven is probably the best candidate for it. As a piece of filmmaking, it was nothing special even in its day. What made it special was the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine. They were at the peak of their celebrity in 1960, as famous for being famous as they were for anything they actually did. They were all—especially Sinatra, their super-hip leader—Las Vegas royalty, so what could be more natural, or more fun, than for them to make a movie about a bunch of war buddies who come together to knock over a handful of Vegas casinos?
So the Pack teamed up with a bunch of veteran character actors (Richard Conte, Cesar Romero, Akim Tamiroff, Henry Silva), a handful of hired-gun writers (George Clayton Johnson, Harry Brown, Charles Lederer, even an uncredited Billy Wilder), and a legendary director old and tired enough to safely ignore (Lewis Milestone), and bada-bing, bada-boom, there you have it. No classic, to be sure, but high enough of a profile in its own time that it would carry some cachet 40 years later.
The new version retains only the basic premise: a passel of movie stars pretending to be normal people plot to rob some Vegas casinos. The director this time around is Steven Soderbergh, in the prime of his career and coming off the one-two punch of Erin Brockovich and Traffic where Milestone was all but retired in 1960. And while the stars may not have the ring-a-ding glamour Frankie and the gang enjoyed way back then, they come close enough by 2001 standards.
George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, the mastermind of the heist. Fresh out of a New Jersey prison, he begins assembling a team (including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner and an unbilled Don Cheadle) to hit the subterranean vault that serves the Bellagio, the MGM Grand and the Mirage. The casinos in the film are all owned by the ruthless Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who, by an amazing coincidence, is the current boyfriend of Danny’s ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts).
Soderbergh’s version of Ocean’s Eleven, like the original, doesn’t have a thought in its head beyond being a cool and slick entertainment for star-gazing moviegoers. Ironically, it succeeds where the original failed and fails where the original succeeded. The original was a high-budget home movie with flaccid pacing (Sinatra’s and Martin’s contempt for Milestone was an open secret), and flat and fake-looking sets (even the real casinos). But just when you were ready to dismiss the whole thing as an empty vanity—which, after all, is what it was—it yanked the rug out with as clever a twist ending as anyone could ever ask.
The new version, for about 100 of its 117 minutes, has everything the first film lacked. Soderbergh gives the film the hazy atmosphere of sleeplessness and forlorn hope that always hovers around the edges of a casino (Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer, under the name of Peter Andrews). Writer Ted Griffin provides spicy and lively dialogue for everyone, especially in the scenes between Pitt and Clooney and Roberts and Clooney. And Soderbergh keeps the action moving with the energy of a double vodka martini.
But just as the heist itself gets rolling, when the action should really begin to boil, the film begins to unravel. Griffin’s plot twists become contrived (there are a few too many twittering cell phones), and Soderbergh seems to lose interest in keeping it all moving.
By the time we reach the end, waiting for that delicious twist that heist movies always seem to work toward—everything absolutely falls apart. Soderbergh and Griffin try not once, but twice, and they simply can’t figure out how to wrap things up. Worse, they actually sign off with a cliffhanger, as if they were, against all reason, planning a sequel. It’s a sore-thumb moment that all but ruins the whole show. It’s like watching a figure skater execute a flawless routine with effortless grace—only to slip and fall on the last triple axel and go skidding across the ice on his butt.