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The Rebirth of Cool 

While comparisons are generally unfair, it's interesting to note the backstory and reality of the original Ocean's Eleven. Frank Sinatra had convinced his pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop to join him for extended gigs at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas. Somebody got the bright idea to make a movie while they were there (the first of what would be three of a kind), and respected filmmaker Lewis Milestone (as reported in this month's Premiere) took on producer and director duties.

But Milestone ran up against a wall of cool instead of being allowed to capture its essence. The Rat Pack, with Sinatra as its field general, played by its own rules and on its own timetable. (Come to think of it, that was the whole point of the plot, which included a massive heist of the town's five big casinos.) So the boys did what they wanted to do, and Milestone was basically left with a bad movie -- but still fun, in its own breezy way. They were a bunch of cool cats acting cool (if not well), not giving a damn.

I mention all this because, in order to capture the New Millennium cool of his own mega-watt cast -- a group of people that know each other well, but as best can be seen don't share hookers or anything -- Steven Soderbergh went in the other direction. He let George Clooney (a merry prankster if there ever were), Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and company have fun off the screen, kept the reins loose, and the result is an Ocean's Eleven remake with a little more depth, a little more texture, and a little more fun. And yeah, it's cool, too.

It's in Clooney's million-dollar smile. It's in the clothes, whether in Clooney's blazer/open-collar thang or Pitt's liquid-metal tie/shirt ensembles. And of course Roberts' red dress, the dead giveaway of a siren. ("It's the high point of my day," mumbles Damon's Linus Caldwell, the rookie pickpocket stuck on surveillance detail.) And it's definitely in Vegas in general; whether watching as the schizophrenic casino lights sizzle through the Nevada night or tapping the hum of the gambling din inside, Soderbergh can feel the cool and show it to us. (As he did in Traffic, he also served as cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews.)

More importantly, Soderbergh resists lots of obvious temptations -- explaining too much of the heist's details, blasts of gunfire, car chases, etc. -- and basically asks for the same amount of trust from the viewer that Ocean asks of his gang. Moreover, Soderbergh avoids many Vegas and even retro cliches. So instead of the expected rehash of lounge chic (what, no "Ain't That a Kick in the Head"?), we get a funky soundtrack virtually on loan from Soderbergh's even cooler 1998 effort, Out of Sight (which also featured Clooney as a good bad guy). Here Soderbergh seems to be channeling through Clooney's Danny Ocean; he's got a plan, he's not going to give you all the details right away, but it'll be fun.

Danny, by the way, has just gotten out of the joint and wants to go straight back to what got him there: stealing. But as he explains to Pitt's card sharp Rusty Ryan, you have to bet big to beat the house. Hence a plan to steal $150 million stored in an impregnable vault for three major Vegas casinos. To do that, they need a bankroll and a cast of characters who can fill all the various duties. So they enlist an embittered former casino owner (Elliott Gould, having fun for the first time on the big screen in years). He gets an explosives expert (Don Cheadle, typically lively though sporting a needless Cockney accent), and a "grease man" who squeezes into tight spaces (real-life acrobat Shaobo Qin). And others, including an inside man (Bernie Mac, who is someone to watch) and a sophomoric, Abbott-and-Costello duo in Scott Caan and Casey Affleck, whose constant bickering drives everyone to the point of distraction. And so on.

There's a catch, of course. Danny's got a hidden agenda in the form of his ex-wife (Roberts). Seems she's shacked up with evil Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, lifeless as usual), who just happens to own all three of the targeted casinos. Danny wants his girl back even more than he wants the loot, which in his eyes is only the icing on the cake. But when it gets personal, it gets dangerous, and so a normally impossible heist becomes that much more difficult to pull it off. Will they? Do you have to ask?

Set-ups are established, the chemistry of the gang develops, and scenes meld into one another like lapping waves. This is Soderbergh and a bunch of stars having fun. But this time, it's on-screen, and it's actually good.

click to enlarge George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould and Don Cheadle help gang up on Vegas casinos in Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's Eleven.
  • George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould and Don Cheadle help gang up on Vegas casinos in Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's Eleven.
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