All bets are off -- 'Ocean's Eleven' is the clear winner

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2001

Forget every other heist movie that came out this year -- and there was a vault full of them. ''Ocean's Eleven'' is the one with the goods.

With a cast of astonishingly talented actors under the astonishingly talented Steven Soderbergh's direction, the movie is everything you'd hope it would be: fun and fast-paced, slick and spontaneous, light and full of laughs.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts are clearly having a ball bouncing off each other, never taking themselves too seriously despite their Hollywood heavyweight status.

That also was true of the original ''Ocean's Eleven'' from 1960, which was better known for the allure of its boozy Rat Pack cast -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford -- than for anything resembling quality filmmaking.

This time, Clooney stars in the Sinatra role as Danny Ocean, fresh out of prison after doing four years for theft and already planning his next big job.

Danny wants to rob the vault that holds the money for three of Las Vegas' biggest casinos -- the Bellagio, the MGM Grand and the Mirage. And he wants to do it on the night of a heavyweight championship fight, when he knows the high rollers will be in town and the vault will hold about $150 million.

He figures it'll take 11 guys, each with unique talents, to pull it off. Besides himself, there's Rusty Ryan (Pitt), a card shark and his right-hand man; Linus Caldwell (Damon), the pickpocket son of a famous con artist; Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), a Cockney explosives expert; and Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), a high-strung surveillance specialist.

He also needs help from his old friend Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), a blackjack dealer; Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), a gaudy former casino owner with a score to settle; Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), an old-school gambler; brothers Turk and Virgil Malloy (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck), the getaway drivers who quickly change clothes to play several roles; and Yen (Shaobo Qin), a Chinese acrobat whose flexibility is crucial to entering the vault.

And the casinos Danny's targeting just happen to be the ones owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who happens to be dating his ex-wife, Tess (Roberts), the Bellagio museum's curator.

Because the movie is based in reality -- set in actual casinos, featuring a fight between heavyweight boxers Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, with celebrities making ringside cameos -- it highlights how ridiculously impossible Danny's plan is. Rusty informs him they're trying to break into ''the least accessible vault ever imagined.''

But that's why it's so funny. When they need a bomb to wipe out all the electricity on the Las Vegas strip temporarily, they just go out and get one. Gadgets and vehicles and disguises appear out of nowhere. If the slightest detail goes awry, these guys simply talk their way out of trouble.

And as their leader, Clooney is so cool and charming, and he sells the plan so believably, he makes it all sound easy. Who wouldn't follow him into the vault?

Soderbergh, who's also the movie's cinematographer, bathes Vegas in bleached out, shimmering tones -- similar to the gritty look of ''Traffic'' -- rather than bright, splashy colors.

And a great soundtrack gives the movie a swaggering retro feel, punctuated by David Holmes' jazzy score, alongside Elvis Presley's ''A Little Less Conversa-tion'' and the Philadelphia Orchestra performing ''Clair de Lune,'' which plays as the guys admire the Bellagio's spectacular water show.

The only weakness is in its character development. Garcia's casino owner is powerful and sleazy but not a terribly formidable villain. And Roberts doesn't have much to do besides show up and look good in gorgeous clothes and jewels -- though screenwriter Ted Griffin does give her some snappy banter with Clooney in a couple of scenes.

But who cares? Soderbergh and the ensemble cast get so much right, it should be a crime.

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