You're on a roll of critically lauded, commercially successful movies, a roll of such momentum that you've just snagged an Oscar (Traffic) and are, according to many, the Best Director Working In Hollywood Today. Great. But what now? How do you live up to those former glories? Or, more pertinently, just how the hell do you top them?
There are three options. One, the James Cameron method (do nothing at all bar revel in your self-proclaimed title as King Of The World). Two, strive for even bigger and greater things, ardently tackling projects of ever increasing scope and ambition - - let's call it the David Lean method. Or three, ignore the expectations and simply make a film for fun, just as Spielberg churned out The Lost World to cast off the shadows of Schindler's List and Amistad.
Steven Soderbergh has wisely taken the third option with Ocean's Eleven, a loose remake of the utterly forgettable Rat Pack flick released in 1960. By his own admission this is not a substantial movie, a complex movie or even a particularly challenging movie, for it has little depth and next to no emotional resonance. Put another way, it certainly won't win him a second Oscar. What it will do, however, is pack in punters on a Friday night and send them reeling back out with foolish grins plastered from ear to ear. Why? Because movies just don't get any more slick, entertaining or downright cool than this.
We first meet Danny Ocean (George Clooney) as he sits before the parole board, cocky and charming despite the circumstances. A big-time thief linked to 12 major robberies but charged for only one, he's now served his time and is ready to up and out.
Upon release, Danny immediately hooks up with his old partner in crime, Rusty (Brad Pitt), and the two begin to fine-tune a heist so outrageous it's almost the stuff of sci-fi: to take out the impenetrable vault shared by three of Las Vegas' biggest casinos, The Bellagio, The Mirage and The MGM Grand. And if that's not enough, they're going to do it on World Title Fight Night (Lennox Lewis gets a cameo, thankfully non-speaking), meaning there'll be upwards of $160 million to be skimmed.
Ocean's Eleven is, purely and simply, a genre movie, a heist flick that lovingly obeys the rules set by its many predecessors. First off, much fun is had with the old standby of assembling the crew, as Danny and Rusty gather together the nine other crims - - each with their own area of expertise - - needed to do job. Then there's the elaborate reconnaissance op, as the guys systematically case the joints, learning the casinos' every pulse, beat and rhythm. And finally there are the practice runs, the team honing their skills in a full size replica of the unbreakable vault.
But fun as all this malarkey undoubtedly is, it's Soderbergh's souffle-light, super-bright direction and the actors' throbbing charisma that makes Ocean's Eleven as dazzling as The Strip itself. Clooney may be riffing on his Jack Foley persona from Out Of Sight and Pitt may be just looking good `n' playing cool, but their sparkling repartee is so effortless it recalls the blokey banter of a Howard Hawks movie. The other guys, too - - including Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Carl Reiner - - also play Hawksian types, consummate pros as loyal as they are dependable. And the comparison even stretches as far as Julia Roberts' Tess. A tough-talking, no nonsense dame who can more than hold her own against the big boys, it's hard to imagine many actresses making so much of such a small (but vitally important) role. To say more would be to give the game away.
Two other stars also deserve special mention. The first is Andy Garcia, who is so good as Terry Benedict, the suave owner of the three casinos, that he almost steals the film from the team of thieves. And the second is Vegas itself. We get helicopter shots past the Stratosphere, tracking shots along The Strip and complete access to the casinos in question - incredible considering the whole movie is about robbing these very joints blind.
Incredible also serves as a description for Soderbergh's bold use of music, his decision to blend Jazz fusion with the likes of Berlin's `Take My Breath Away' and Norman Greenbaum's `Spirit In The Sky' is revelatory. Who'd have thought that this gawky, balding, bespectacled director would become Hollywood's coolest man?
No guns, no swearing, no obvious CGI... just great writing, strong acting and note perfect direction. Soderbergh's made one or two better movies, but never one so enjoyable.