Ocean’s Thirteen

Steven Soderbergh makes it a trilogy with his latest Ocean’s installment, Ocean’s Thirteen. It’s not a bad movie, but like its immediate predecessor it falls far short of the first movie, and for the typical reasons that sequels generally fall short. Not based on action and fighting sequences, the Ocean’s saga relies on its characters’ smooth and cool style, quirky humor and clever tricks to entertain its audiences. Unfortunately, these traits wind up just as empty and unfulfilling when not backed by the cornerstones of storytelling as car chases, fight scenes and explosions.

In the latest version of the adventures of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Co., Al Pacino plays the bad guy, Willie Bank. He forces long time Ocean co-conspirator and financier Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of a business deal and thereby gains the enmity of the entire Ocean crew. While Reuben recovers from his physical and emotional injuries, Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) design a plan to ruin Bank’s latest enterprise.

The plan is grandiose, intricate, far reaching… far more so than the original heist from the first film. In the course of their trickery the team members engage in all manner of operations and are faced with every type of setback requiring last minute fixes. But the movie does not concern itself with details. As far fetched as the first movie was, it managed to make the entire affair seem believable by carefully showing how each feat, no matter how difficult, was accomplished. And it didn’t leave loose ends lying around demanding an explanation.

This third movie strained my credulity farther than I was willing to let it go. Examples abound: Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck) infiltrates a Mexican dice factory so as to be able to mix a special substance into the die which will later allow them to control how they fall. When he complains about the working conditions in Mexico he incites a workers’ rebellion which jeopardizes the project. His brother Turk (Scott Caan) is sent down to try and quell the strike and get the dice made but winds up joining the rebellion. Eventually, Team Ocean simply pays the extra wages the workers are demanding and ends the strike.

The entire episode probably takes up less than 15 minutes of screen time. Like the other side plots in the movie it is quite fantastic and under explained. Leaving alone the idea that an American worker complaining about the long days on the job while drinking in a tavern with a couple co-workers could incite a huge labor dispute, there had to have been all sorts of logistics problems to overcome merely to get Virgil the job in a Mexican factory (work permits, for example). The movie declines to deal with any of these problems. We are simply shown that Virgil is working there and are expected to accept this.

Likewise, when Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) needs to drill a tunnel under the city we are just expected to accept this without question. How he can do this and evade detection by the authorities, how they manage to get the drill that dug the Chunnel from the English side, or how, when that breaks down, they manage to get the one that dug the Chunnel from the French side is left to our imagination. The movie is littered with similar side plots, all fantastic and all under explained. When all is said and done so much has occurred, at such a pace and with such little attention to detail, that the viewer has few other recourses than to roll his eyes and hope for better things in the future.

Of course, with all the extra tricks and subterfuge being crammed into a movie of approximately the same length as the original, something else must be cut. That something is drama and character development. There is very little in Ocean’s Thirteen besides wise cracks and scheming con men. Absent is any interesting drama such as George Clooney, Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts provide in Ocean’s Eleven. Absent also, at least in the first part of the movie, is any sense of forward movement as Ocean and Ryan sit around talking about the tricks they have planned, tricks which are shown to the audience in the multitude of cutaways in which the story gets mired.

There are some very fine shots taken in Ocean’s Thirteen as well as a few mild chuckles to be had. The movie has obviously been pieced together by competent professionals, but overall it fails to deliver like the first. By focusing on the showy elements and forgetting the pillars of filmmaking, Soderbergh falls into the same kind of trap that caught the Wachowski brothers with The Matrix trilogy, or Gore Verbinski with Pirates, or George Lucas with Star Wars. But I suppose that as long as we keep giving sequels 90 million dollar opening weekends, they have little reason to think they are doing something wrong.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Matthew is a graduate of THE Ohio State University. An occasionally truant student, he majored in Spanish when he finally got around to it. His interests, apart from movies, range from heavy metal and classical music to football, soccer, hockey, history, economics and obviously sex, a subject in which, like the Vicomte Sabastien de Valmont said of Madame de Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons, he is more noted for his enthusiasm than his ability. So be it. His DVD collection is growing to an acceptable size, and along the way he has noted that decades which begin with an odd number the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s are cinematically stronger than decades which begin with an even number. Therefore, he is anxiously awaiting 2010 and hopes still to be a Reject at that date.

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