Let’s face it: No matter how good “Ocean’s 8” is, it will still be derivative of the original Ocean’s trilogy — another half-assed Hollywood attempt to fit women’s equality into a market-safe franchise. That didn’t work with “Ghostbusters,” and it likely won’t work here.
But I’m still excited, because the advent of “Ocean’s 8” reminds me that Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen are enjoyable (and sometimes great) movies. After seeing the “Ocean’s 8” red girl power posters in the New York City subway over the past week, I revisited them and found that these early 2000s capers still hold up. Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films endure because they skip petty social commentary and excel instead at dazzling audiences with skillful and fast-paced entertainment.
It’s the chemistry between the actors that elevates the films beyond simple popcorn fare. Although he ostensibly made a series about ripping off Las Vegas casinos (and the revenge cycles that follow), Soderbergh is most interested in showing us how an ensemble of famous people behave in a gang. George Clooney plays ringleader Danny Ocean, gliding through Vegas with the coolest irony. Julia Roberts collides with him as Ocean’s equally icy estranged wife, Tess. Brad Pitt joins as Ocean’s always-eating sidekick Rusty Ryan, Pitt’s most bananas role since 12 Monkeys. Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Bernie Mac, and a whole crew of cons back the venture with wise-ass charm.
The exuberance of these original Ocean’s movies belongs to the world that created classics like “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” “Casablanca” shines because its stars treat their material with love. There is nothing remarkable in Rick Blaine’s famous lovesick mutter “of all the gin joints in the world” on its own, but Bogey messes with it, and spits genius through gritted teeth. In a similar way, “Citizen Kane” continues to delight because — even with repeated viewings — Orson Welles keeps the surprises coming with his trick shots. Movies like these don’t age.
And the Ocean’s trilogy hasn’t aged much either. The films are well-written and Soderbergh knows how to work a camera in a casino with flair. Huge casts, Sinatra-driven soundtracks, and color-saturated casinos make them carnivals of maximalism, and that’s why they work.
Ocean’s schemes are hairbrained and ridiculous. His big plan in “Ocean’s Eleven” — recreating a casino vault and then filming a fake robbery in it while a real robbery takes place in the real vault — would never work in real life, but who cares? That’s the joke. With Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, the schemes get more abstruse, but that doesn’t hurt the films. It just means the dialogue and interactions between the characters receive more attention.
“Ocean’s Twelve” is the best of the trilogy for this reason. Here, Soderbergh dispenses with plot coherence entirely and lets his actors have free reign with the roles. The result is a haphazard romp through Europe, where the absurd becomes plausible. An early heist involves an impenetrable fortress, which the crew penetrates by lifting it off its foundations and shooting an arrow through a cracked window to dismantle the security system. The execution of the crime definitely cost more than its payoff, but Soderbergh shoots it with such streamlined elegance that no one seems to notice.
In the film’s most memorable scene, Roberts in the role of Tess-Impersonating-Roberts meets Bruce Willis in a cameo role at an Italian art museum. Cameo Willis exposes Cameo Roberts as Impersonator Tess — who we all know is still Roberts playing the role of Tess.
This the sort of thing that only happens in pure film. The scene has little bearing on the plot, but that’s its beauty: It invites the audience to forget scrutiny and participate in the movie’s levity. Roger Ebert remarked that the Roberts-Willis interaction marked the “Ocean’s Twelve’s” high point, “When you get to the point of interlocking cameos, you have ascended to a level of invention that is its own reward,” he said.
Throughout its run, the whole Ocean’s series invented and reinvented itself at every turn. If Soderbergh had hopped on the all-female lead hype train, he would have played it for screwball laughs — not with the self-seriousness of the reboot. But I’m so glad “Ocean’s 8” exists. Maybe the ads will inspire others to rewatch the Ocean’s trilogy and rediscover that big movies can still be a treat for the eyes and ears. What more could you ask from a summer blockbuster?