After their old chum Reuben Tischkoff (Gould) is double-crossed in a business deal and hospitalized, Danny Ocean (Clooney) reconvenes his charming gang of thieves and heads to Las Vegas to gain revenge on the man who put Ruben at deaths door: shark-like
Perhaps because the experience involves watching so many A-list stars having a whale of a time, the Ocean’s movies have always felt like a party. Sadly, whereas Ocean’s Eleven was an all-inclusive affair, 2005’s Ocean’s Twelve felt like we had our faces pressed up against the glass watching Brad’n’George’n’Matt’n’chums in the VIP lounge have considerably more fun than we were having. Well, hurrah and huzzah, the trilogy (of sorts; it’s more a series of films that happen to feature the same characters) is complete with Ocean’s Thirteen, and the invites are definitely back in the post.
In fact, Thirteen occasionally feels like a two-hour apology for the French New Wave noodling of Twelve, with a dialing down of the smugness that alienated so many last time around, a recalibration of focus onto the gang themselves (no love interests here; Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts’ absences are explained very early doors), and a return to the Vegas milieu. That is, except for the first half hour, as Eddie Izzard’s electronics genius Roman Nagel arrives, with the heist already underway, to receive a very detailed briefing from Danny (George Clooney) and Rusty (Brad Pitt), who have become seriously stuck in their efforts to break The Bank, Willy Banks’ (Al Pacino) hotel-casino. This extended sequence, wreathed in flashbacks within flashbacks, shadowy camerawork in dimly-hit rooms and reams of machine-gun exposition, feels as experimental as anything Soderbergh has done in the series so far. However, apart from an absolutely cracking opening gag, it’s worryingly flat and difficult to decipher.
But by frontloading the spadework, Soderbergh ensures that the second half of the movie is bright, breezy and sumptuously entertaining. The camerawork is jazzed up (one astonishing tracking shot, comprising a series of crash zooms and pans across a casino floor, is a technical marvel), the performances get zestier and the movie virtually bounces towards its conclusion as their complicated machinations come together like clockwork, with twists upon twists, punchline following punchline and pay-off pursuing pay-off. In a summer crowded with darkness, Thirteen’s belated lightness of touch is a blessed relief.
It’s also a masterclass on how to stage an ensemble piece, with each member of the gang given their moment to shine (Casey Affleck’s inspired detour down Mexico way in particular) as they exchange wry quips, shit-eating grins and nonsensical con artist banter about Bellinis, Billy Martins and Susan B. Anthony. Of the true A-listers, Pitt and Damon are once again great fun, but this is Clooney’s movie. As he gets older, the former Dr. Doug Ross just becomes more charismatic and commanding, quietly dominating with two standout moments – a brilliantly-developed gag about Oprah that is the movie’s funniest scene; and a commanding parting shot to Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict – that remind you why we’re not watching, say, Rusty’s Thirteen.
In such illustrious company, you’d still expect Pacino to shine but– a few quiet moments aside – Willy Bank is never fully developed into the chilling nemesis he could have been. His unscrupulous scheming does prompt a lovely and vaguely poetic recurring motif about ‘shaking Sinatra’s hand’ (the only direct reference in the franchise to the star of the original Ocean’s Eleven), but really, the honour amongst thieves subtext is almost an afterthought. Ocean’s Thirteen is about gloss and glitz; here, the style //is// the substance, and the result is the first genuinely enjoyable movie of the summer.
You can beat the house and you can break the bank, but sequels always get long odds on defeating the law of diminishing returns yet Oceans Thirteen just about pulls it off.