From the tipsy glitz of subverting high-end casino security to quibbling about paint-tones with the decorator guy... Danny (George Clooney) and Tess (Julia Roberts) are soppy and settled when the man whose stolen money bankrolled this domestic bliss drops in and demands it all back, with interest. Solution: steal some more. Ideally, from cinematic spots like Rome, Amsterdam and a massive great mansion overlooking Lake Como in Italy....
Despite being two weeks away from butchery at the hands of Andy Garcia's goons, everyone in Ocean's Twelve seems to be having a damned good time: idling around roadside cafés; shuffling across postcard-pretty bridges; purring about the place in louche Euro-coupes. Probably because that's exactly what the (in)famously bonded cast were doing. And that's where the film will swing either way. Can you: A) happily squish your nose up against the glass and coo at the cute people doing clever things in cool places, or B) do you find it all a bit... smug?
We're mostly A), but with way too many flutters of B). The obvious chemistry boost drawn from inter-cast mateyness has given the dialogue an air of close friends nodding, winking, bantering, finishing each other's sentences. However, there are times when the starburst is a little dazzling, and you're all too aware that you're watching George Clooney talk to Brad Pitt while Matt Damon waits for his line.
But Ocean's Twelve is far too peppy and assured to have its spell broken for long, and Steven Soderbergh is the kind of stylist who delivers refreshment with every oddly tilted shot, time-warping jump-cut and smudgy freeze-frame. Hell, the guy even puts a lot of thought into overlaying his captions in a pleasing way. He has a perfect eye for The Shot and always uses technical flair to serve the drama of the scene or to keep the audience amused during incidental or talky stuff (look out for the 90-degree tilted plane landing).
But all of the edgy edits and zippy temporal jinking would be redundant if the story couldn't keep up and, thanks to sparkling script-work from George Nolfi, we're always bang in the middle of a twist, a ruse or a triple-cross that thinks it's a double-cross. As for the score, David Holmes's sensual, shuffling proto-funk thrums away beneath it all, syncopated to the action with the kind of infectious swagger that incidental music rarely pulls off.
The biggest surprise is how sidelined Clooney seems - - maybe because of his increased production role and the post-Solaris pressure to deliver something more multiplex-friendly. This time it's Brad Pitt who's wearing the vogueishly saggy trousers, swiping all the sharpest lines and screen-time. He's well aware that no-one removes a pair of rimless shades with quite the same degree of panache, and Soderbergh indulges him all the way, while Clooney and Damon seem happy to lurk in his shadow.
Ocean's Eleven was a buzz because of the easy, breezy way the A-list parts all glided together into a guys-on-a-mission whole. This one feels a lot more forced, with the intimacy of the original crew fractured by a host of infrequently adequate cameos and a cartoonish bad guy and gal. The ever-magnetic Vincent Cassel is all Bond villain flash and smirk as the Ocean crew's Euro-antagonist, and Catherine Zeta-Jones struggles to cook up some lukewarm Out Of Sight-style cop/robber kissy-kissy with Pitt.
Furthermore, while the devilish plot structure of the first film was built on a suave melody of character interplay and sneaky reveals, this hammers together its story with more grit than guile. It often feels like Soderbergh's remake of the original, only with more hand-held camerawork. This is where the smugness surfaces, with the line blurred between characters/actors justifying their actions.
However, despite the place being littered with plot-holes and logic-kinks, Zeta-Jones's clunkiness and Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts (you'll see), Soderbergh just about papers over the cracks with an assault of dashing set-pieces: Benedict's ruthless intro round-up; an ultra-hi-tech blag on a well-fortified antique shop; and, best, Cassel's capoeira slow-breakdance through a bank of probing lasers.
While it lasts, Ocean's Twelve is an amusing, light-headed whirl. But the A-list group-hug, so bracing in the original, now feels limp and insincere. Sure, it'll seduce and ravish you for a couple of hours, but leave you feeling a bit used and dirty in the morning.
The thrill hasn't gone, but this is an uneven retread, way too pleased with itself to match the original's unaffected charm.