To celebrate Steven Soderbergh's unretirement, we revisit the worst of the Ocean's trilogy to see how it's any better.
Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.
At the end of a dynamite run that included the expert Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, the spellbinding crime thriller The Limey, and Oscar favourites Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Steven Soderbergh dropped what would prove to be his most commercially successful film. Ocean's Eleven, his flash 2001 remake of the 1960 Rat Pack heist flick, so dazzled audiences with its kinetic editing, narrative dynamism, and megawatt star power that the take was $450 million worldwide. Naturally, Warner Bros. greenlit a sequel; naturally, this being the same Steven Soderbergh who intentionally blew up his own career with the batshit Schizopolis in 1996 and would go on to suddenly 'retire' from filmmaking in 2013 aged just 50, the director had no plans to make a predictable follow-up move.
Given $110 million to play with, Soderbergh jetted his beautiful cast to Europe to stage a more intricate heist. Ocean's returning eleven, aided by Eddie Izzard and Robbie Coltrane's Euro-crims, plus Julia Roberts as the wife of George Clooney's Danny Ocean, are forced to rob their way to $90 million by vengeful casino boss Andy Garcia—all while being pursued by Catherine Zeta-Jones's Europol agent, and challenged every step of the way by Vincent Cassel's rival master thief. Oh, and long con artist Albert Finney acts as shady puppetmaster. This time, there are three robberies; the climactic score involves Roberts's Tess masquerading as the actress Julia Roberts, made trickier when the crew happen upon Bruce Willis (played, somewhat unconvincingly, by Bruce Willis) while attempting to steal a Faberge egg from a Rome museum.
The result, as the uninitiated could guess from the synopsis alone, is what some have politely referred to as "a mess." Ocean's Twelve made $100 million less than its predecessor, while critics were even more forthright than audiences in their disapproval: The Washington Post called Ocean's Twelve "fluff", the Guardian branded it "cheesy, flatulent and dull," while Entertainment Weekly gave the film a D+ and went on to rank it as one of the worst sequels of all time.
Today, Soderbergh's pop meta-caper divides. The director has officially un-retired by releasing comic thriller Logan Lucky into cinemas, and critics now heralding his return by ranking his 28-year-long, 27-feature filmography can't decide whether Ocean's Twelve is one of Soderbergh's worst, one of his best or something in between. While some maintain the film is junk, others have come to reclaim Ocean's Twelve as a kind of misunderstood bastard classic. Soderbergh himself makes the argument that it's the greatest Ocean's movie: "In terms of shot construction, cutting patterns, the use of music—from a filmmaking standpoint, that's the best of the three."
On those terms—specifically, that a bad movie has to fail on a technical level to be truly bad—Twelve is a success. Soderbergh contests that critical ire should be reserved for "actual filmmaking incompetence," something that the immaculate Ocean's Twelve is never guilty of. But then there's the argument that filmmaking isn't a cold, unfeeling science—it's an alchemy. It's not the individual parts of a movie that matter, but how satisfyingly they complement and contrast when fused.
Ocean's Twelve's kaleidoscope of colour and film styles makes for a pretty vision, but too often the images serve only themselves, not the plot. The editing is clean, but the story is stodgy; David Holmes's music has drive and purpose where the narrative has none; outside the holy trinity of Clooney, Pitt, and Damon, the actors are under-utilized. Where Eleven was propulsive and inclusive, Twelve is bogged down by perfunctory scenes of the crew cracking wise about Clooney's age and bumpkin boy scout Matt Damon's ranking in the movie star hierarchy. In Ocean's Twelve, George, Brad, and the guys are having fun without us. We're on the outside looking in, like a celebrity stalker who's hit the jackpot, but privy to in-jokes that are exclusive to cast and crew.
Take the "Julia Roberts" scene. This instance of meta madness reveals to us that Soderbergh, who has more faces than Janus as a filmmaker, is not in blockbuster mode but has instead taken the role of irreverent trickster. Twelve's plot is overly-convoluted and far-fetched because Soderbergh thinks audiences don't really care about plot; the stars play themselves hanging out in exotic locations because why pretend films of this sort aren't an excuse for exactly that? In 2017, with the big budgets reserved almost solely for shared fantasy universes, he could never get away with it, but back in 2004 Soderbergh was experimenting with a multi-million dollar franchise, using the big bucks to poke fun at us, at Hollywood and at what both expect from a big budget sequel.
In having his fun, though, Soderbergh denies us ours. It's why Ocean's Twelve can be enjoyed by those who want to analyze the picture, but less so by those who simply wish to be entertained by it. Admirably cine-literate and auteur-driven, qualities rare in blockbuster moviemaking today, Twelve is still limited as popcorn fun. Both the film's champions and its detractors have valid points. Ocean's Twelve is a fascinating text to dissect, a triumph on a technical level, and as soporific and smug as a piece of entertainment as a filmed European vacation featuring George Clooney and Brad Pitt can be.