George Clooney is ubiquitous. Last week we all saw him at Prince Harry and Megan’s wedding. He looked as much a part of a fairy tale as the wedding itself – suave and handsome, with his young wife on his arm. The Daily Express ran a story that same day with the opening line: “GEORGE Clooney and his stunning wife Amal stole the show at the Royal Wedding in Windsor today.” George seems to have it all. But at the beginning of Ocean’s Eleven, his character, Danny Ocean, has lost it all. His wife had left him before he was sent to prison. And he describes how the distraction of that loss led to him being caught in his latest illegal caper.
The parole board gives him his freedom, but freedom isn’t enough. He wants to get his wife back, and he has devised a plan to do that – and make a bit of cash in the process. Danny finds out his old partner in crime, Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) is teaching movie stars* how to play poker. He decides to sit in on a game, and takes them for a bundle when Rusty thinks he is bluffing. Afterward Danny tells Rusty about the proposed heist, and Rusty asks why he wants to do it. Ocean responds:
Because the house always wins. You play long enough and never change the stakes, the house takes ya. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big. And then you take the house.
Danny believes the plan he has devised is the perfect hand. The scheme is a complicated one, and will require some help. Of course. How else could you have a heist movie called “Ocean’s Eleven”? Besides Danny and Rusty, here are the other nine, and their roles in the caper.
- Frank Catten (Bernie Mac) – Frank is a blackjack dealer in New Jersey at the beginning of the movie. Ocean’s old associate, he tells him how to find Rusty. He has been using an alias (Ramón) so he can work in casinos. In order to participate in the heist as an insider, he requests a transfer to a “warmer, drier climate” due to “allergies.”
- Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) – Saul has been out of prison for a year, and says he is now a “changed man,” wanting no part of the deal. However, when he finds out the amount of money involved, he’s in. Saul poses as Lyman Zerga, an arms dealer from Europe. He asks casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) to secure his briefcase in the vault. The briefcase contains large fake jewels which have been filled with explosives. The purpose is not only to get the explosives into the vault, but to provide an opportunity to get into the security room. Saul will fake his death† in order to distract the security team so the team can change the video feed without the guards detecting it.
- Reuben Tishoff (Elliot Gould) – He tells Danny no one has ever successfully robbed a Las Vegas Casino.‡ He wants no part in it until he learns the casinos belong to Terry Benedict, who had muscled Reuben out of a share in a casino that Benedict is now tearing down. (Danny can be seen reading an article about this near the beginning of the movie.)
- Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) – With a name like Dell, Livingston has to be the electronics guy. He is rather a klutz, which makes for some melodramatic moments. His responsibilities include tapping into the security system. He has to draw a map of the secure area of the casino on his hand to find his way, and almost gets lost when the map becomes smeared from wiping the sweat off his brow.
- Yen (Qin Shaobo) – This short Chinese acrobat is recruited as the “Grease man.” He will hide inside a cash cart in order to get inside the vault.
8. & 9. Virgil and Turk Malloy (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) – These brothers are the getaway drivers, and also deliver the cart – where Yen is hidden – to the security doors, pretending to have forgotten their access card. Security takes the cart the rest of the way so they won’t make a scene or alert Benedict that there is a problem.
- Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) – Basher is the munitions expert. His job is to take out the electrical power to the town. After wading through the sewers he finds out what he had planned had already been thwarted by changes being made to the grid. Covered in sewage, he tells his comrades (of course) “We’re in deep s**t!” However, he is able to come up with an alternate plan using a “pinch”—a device which delivers an electronic pulse which will put out the power for about thirty seconds.
- Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) – Linus is recruited by Danny in Chicago, where Linus makes a “living” pick-pocketing. His father is a legendary con artist, Bobby Caldwell, a friend of Danny. When part of the crew goes to steal the “pinch,” he is left in the van with the brothers, who are acting like… brothers. Linus is annoyed with their banter, so he leaves the vehicle and is nearly caught. This results in Yen’s hand being slammed in the rear door, further jeopardizing the plan. Linus also poses as a Nevada Gaming Commission officer, exposing “Ramón” as an ex-con. This is a distraction while the heist is going down.
All the pieces of an intricate puzzle are now in place. Everyone must play their part, and, if all goes as planned, the eleven will walk away with equal shares of $160 million. But money is not the prime motivator for Danny. He is willing to be exposed in order to get the girl. There is no other way. But in exposing himself, he also plans to expose Terry Benedict for who he is, and, at the very least, show Tess (Julia Roberts) she needs to leave Terry.
It works. Tess finds out money is more important to Terry than she is. In the end, all Danny gives up is a few bruises from a staged fight and “three to six months” in jail for violating his parole. It could have been worse. The house could have been holding cards which could beat his two pair and an Ace, but Danny played the hand anyway, putting everything on the line. And he won big. Or will Benedict catch up to him? At the end of the movie we see Terry’s thugs tailing Danny, Rusty and Tess… but we have to wait for Ocean’s 12 to find out what happens.
Stephen Solderberg, who directed this picture, is known for films of a more serious nature, including the Julia Roberts movie, Erin Brockovich. I like the way Roger Ebert described the switch in his review.
Serious pianists sometimes pound out a little honky-tonk, just for fun. That’s like what Steven Soderbergh is doing in “Ocean’s Eleven.” This is a standard genre picture, a remake of the 1960 Frank Sinatra caper, and Soderbergh, who usually aims higher, does it as a sort of lark. It’s slick, all right: directors this good don’t usually handle material this routine. It has yearnings above its natural level, as if hoping to redeem itself and metamorphose into a really good movie.
Sometimes bit of “honky-tonk” is what you need. Sometimes we need to leave our seriousness and just have a bit of fun. In that spirit, I will leave off trying to end this review with some quasi-preachy ending. Take from the movie what you will. Just don’t forget to have fun. (Is that too preachy?)
*The “movie stars” are well known television personalities from the 1990s: Holly Marie Combs (Piper from Charmed), Topher Grace (Eric from That ‘70s Show), Joshua Jackson (Pacey from Dawson’s Creek), Barry Watson (Matt from 7th Heaven), and Shane West (Eli from Once and Again).
†Saul’s “death” is reminiscent of Tony’s death in the 1960 version of Ocean’s 11. In earlier scenes, he is shown to be suffering from stomach ulcers, and almost faints in the hotel just before he leaves to meet Benedict the last time. This makes the “death” scene all the more poignant for the audience, since it has not been let in on the details.
‡Actually, Vegas casinos have been robbed numerous times. For some of the most notorious, see The ten most daring casino heists in history.