Any film with ‘Eleven’ in its title is giving itself rather ambitious goals; eleven of anything, be it targets, bad guys, explosions or, as in this case, lead characters, is always going to be difficult to fit into a film without at least the last four losing any touch of something special. Even the original Ocean’s Eleven, made back in 1960 (did you know this film was a remake? I sure as hell didn’t) apparently made do with just five main leads and a few bit-part players to act as manpower for the con, and by introducing eleven distinct characters each with a well-defined role, the risk of the whole film turning into a screen time contest is ever-present. Thankfully, everybody knows their place; the film is plenty long enough for everyone to get their five minutes of character definition so we know who the hell this guy is when he shows up an hour later, and the film has the good sense to be plot- rather than character-driven to allow it to stick to what it’s about; the heist.
Yes, it’s another organised crime/massively-overblown-way-of-nicking-a-ton-of-money film; our protagonist this time is George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, recently released from prison and instantly deciding to go back into business as a career criminal (because laying low is for wusses). His partner in crime is old friend Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and their plan is hardly lacking for ambition; rob the vault that serves three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas when at its fullest. This is a typical feature of modern big-budget film-making; building tension and a sense of ‘this really means something so I should care about it’ by virtue of sheer scale, rather than emphasising the importance of the con itself.
But ho-hum, the film tells us, this is not merely an exercise of scale; this con does have a special meaning for our characters. This comes in the form of Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) and Rather Unnecessary Romantic Subplot™ which, since it takes the form of a ‘big reveal’ halfway through the film I shall choose not to spoil here. Not that it matters especially, since it is a rather extraneous feature; it doesn’t serve to make the protagonist’s actions any more realistic since it is so bloody stupid, and its only real reason for being is so that the filmmakers could put Julia Roberts’ name on the promo material. In 2001 Roberts was the undisputed female star of the film industry, the first woman ever to be paid $20 million for a film, and her name sold cinema seats.
Anyway, back to the actual con, where the film now tries to build scale through complexity; to pull it off, Ocean and Ryan decide to build a the stereotypical ‘crack team’ to handle the job. To this end, they recruit nine fellow crewmembers, each with their own special skill and stereotype revealed in their scheduled two minutes of exposition. We have the socially awkward pickpocket (Matt Damon), the incredibly cockney explosives nut (Don Cheadle, executing what is often regarded as the worst British accent in cinema history), the gifted but infighting brothers (Casey Affleck/Scott Caan) and the Oriental super-acrobat (Shaobo Qin), to name but the most interesting, and all have their requisite one moment of usefulness in the resulting con itself.
However, even if the film has the good sense not to focus on its protagonists, the sheer number of them still presents issues. Of the film’s two hour running time, what feels like three-quarters of it is made up of pure setup, with no action, no fun, no heist; nothing to keep the pace up and the film interesting. In a genre where pace and tension are everything, having no actually interesting subplots to keep the ball rolling for the first hour or so is sheer directorial madness. It seems as if the film was relying on the Clooney/Roberts romantic subplot to cover this period, but since this whole dynamic never feels either especially real nor purports to be meaningful it’s not enough to carry the whole shebang. Steven Soderbergh is not exactly delivering a vintage directorial display here.
The number of actors presents problems in other ways too; there are some pretty good bits of acting on show here, with Clooney being realistic if not particularly emotional and Pitt bringing some characteristic personality to his role. Carl Reiner’s Saul, an old-school con man with one of the more significant roles in the film, also works as a consistent and compelling character, helped by a generous portion of screentime, but these turns are so restricted for space that none of them are ever able to mean anything, only serving to highlight the flaws in the film’s plot. It doesn’t help that pickpocket Linus Caldwell has the misfortune to be played by Matt Damon, who doesn’t appear to function terribly well when not leading a film. His performance here is somewhat uninspired, which would be more forgiveable were his character not meant to be particularly significant. Between these character flaws and those in the film’s storyline, by 80 minutes in I was getting positively bored.
Soderbergh does manage to, somewhat belatedly, partially redeem himself with the execution of the film’s central con, when it finally turns up; the deception employed is as multi-layered, clever and effective as a good on-screen heist should be. It also manages to be totally unexpected without resorting to any of the deus ex machina that inexplicably turned up in the sequel, instead relying on a supremely well-set up piece of criminality that would be far more effective if it had the good grace to turn up at the end of a film I was actually emotionally invested in.
In my review of The Sting, I described it as ‘Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations’. Whereas The Sting is a proper old-fashioned crime film, Ocean’s Eleven only tries to be one for the last half-hour, and is significantly poorer for it. Still, could be worse; Ocean’s Twelve proved that.