If early audience response counts for anything, bet big on “Ocean’s 13” this summer. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic”) created a popular series combining snappy storytelling and bankable movie stars in the heist adventures “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” These films were inspired by “Ocean’s Eleven” made with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in 1960 (which itself was based on a French film from the 1950’s). Clearly, this is an idea with legs. Does “O13” expand the formula established with “O11” and “O12” or does it drown the franchise?
“O13” like its predecessors plays to its strengths: Big, improbable story lines, beautiful people, the whiff of danger. This time, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) reassembles his group of likable larcenists in familiar territory, Las Vegas. They’ve become comfortable to audiences: Brad Pitt and Matt Damon along with Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac and Carl Reiner. Against a backdrop of neon and unreality they follow a code of honor among thieves. One of their group, Reuben Tishikoff (Elliott Gould) has been muscled out of his stake in a new hotel project. They plot revenge against Reuben’s faithless partner, Willy Bank (performed with easy menace by Al Pacino). Danny Ocean’s elaborate plot to break the bank forms the spine of “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Hang onto your popcorn.
“Ocean’s Twelve” takes the action to several European cities. Danny and the group need to repay the Vegas hotel boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) they shook down in “Ocean’s 11.” How to come up with 150 million dollars plus interest–that point reunites the old gang in a series of schemes that come down to a wager with legendary master thief François Toulour (Vincent Cassel). Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Catherine Zeta-Jones. And Julia Roberts’ character impersonates… Julia Roberts!
Love and revenge animate “Ocean’s 11.” Thief Danny Ocean leaves prison. He and partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) assemble a crew for a dream heist: robbing three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict. He’s a megalomaniac with a sadistic edge and he has the poor graces to be hooked up with Danny’s ex-wife, Tess (Julie Roberts). Terry’s in for trouble and O11 delivers it in full measure.
This Ocean’s trilogy attracts audiences favoring stories about people, not costumed heroes, not talking animals or gore. “O11” and “13” exist in a stylized Las Vegas of spotless fantasy where casino lights and supersaturated colors wash over all. A hint of violence and no blood. In addition, the Bank Hotel in “O13” is a masterwork of computer generated imagery; seen from the air it is as garish and gorgeous as any place you’ll see on the strip. Even reality can be a marvel: There’s a tunnel boring machine in “O13” like the one I reported on as it dug through Portland’s West Hills for the Light Rail. “Ocean”s Eleven” set the table for a durable franchise. In its way each film is more ambitious than its predecessor: “Ocean’s Twelve” offers a post card view of Europe that most audiences will never see, with side stories and characters that wouldn’t exist if Danny and Friends never left Las Vegas.
So.. which version prevails?
Score it for the newcomer. The entire series is assured film making that enhances Steven Soderbergh’s reputation for interesting, quirky work. He even photographed “Ocean’s Thirteen” as Peter Andrews. All three “Ocean’s” keep the franchise fresh but the newest film offers more. Technically more adventurous, “O13” also manages to integrate master thief François Toulour from “O12” plus Andy Garcia’s character from both earlier installments. Ellen Barkin earns style points and David Paymer’s performance as the tortured hotel guest is a jewel. “Ocean’s Thirteen” will keep this franchise afloat as long as Soderbergh, George Clooney and their pals remain interested.