“Ocean’s Eleven is the best movie of the trilogy,” they’ll say. “The sequels are just okay,” or “Ocean’s Twelve isn’t as good.” And I’m not going to flat out tell anyone they’re wrong in making these statements. I will, however, ask why people would say such hurtful things? Or better yet, I’ll ask you to take a look at the Ocean’s Trilogy from a different perspective.
Ocean’s Eleven is still a marvel in the pantheon of heist movies. The film hits a smooth rhythm between scenes, doing the traditional assembling of the team to establish the central players and lay out the central heist of the film’s plot trajectory. And the team is composed of an ensemble cast that will continue to be talked about for ages. The only real issue present is George Clooney and Julia Roberts, but by the end of the film, that problem in miscasting sorts itself out, and much like the sequels, this small quibble with casting is improved by the ecstatic joy found by director Steven Soderbergh in assembling his crew in the making of this film.
But as much as I love (and prefer) the Ocean’s sequels, even I have to admit that they’re less heist movies, and moreover experimental exercises in entertainment as self-indulgence for the ensemble cast and Soderbergh to enjoy. But Ocean’s Eleven? Soderbergh’s remake is not only superior to the Frank Sinatra starring original, but it’s also one of the quintessential heist movies of the modern age. An all-star cast utilizes expert chemistry that is so cool you could store perishables via close proximity to them. Possibly the most straight-forward and entertaining film on this list, there’s not much more to the heist movie than stealing a ton of money from a few casinos, until there is in Soderbergh’s sequels to his original reboot.
Going against the grain of popular opinion, I don’t think that Ocean’s Eleven is the best of the Soderbergh’s trilogy of heist movies. Sure, Ocean’s Eleven is objectively the best, and most traditional film in the series, but once the groundwork is laid out in the first installment, Soderbergh has constructed a blend of arthouse and mainstream cinema so unique that he may begin experimenting with his own directorial sensibilities within the sub-genre subsequently. Each entry in the Ocean’s franchise has a strength over the others, with Eleven being the most accessible, Twelve being the most experimental, Thirteen being the crowd-pleasing, victory lap.
If Ocean’s Eleven finds a good rhythm for the audience to follow, Ocean’s Twelve takes that rhythm and tunes it to an entirely different instrument with which to please a different audience. This is one of those pictures I’ll stop whatever it is I’m doing just to admire, as it is a film with the tenacity to stick true to itself, despite being a weird and eccentric heist genre picture. In Ocean’s Twelve, there’s no real narrative to speak of beyond the basic set-up: Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) wants his money back, plus interest, or he’s going to kill the entire Ocean’s Eleven team. As Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) says, “God, interest just kills you.” So the crew is off to Europe to discover that they’ve been challenged by a rival thief who believes he’s the best in the world, and the story forsakes traditional narrative tropes, and plays like a foreign film, without subtitles. Hell, just look at the trailer!
Ocean’s Twelve is partially an homage to dialogue in spy movies, but mostly it’s an attempt at placing us in the shoes of Linus for the rest of the film, declaring that this will be unlike the first movie in almost every way imaginable. It enjoys a film language all of its own, the finished product an impractical joke meant to entertain via its brief sincerity. There are discussions of several other targets to steal from in this film, but Ocean’s Twelve has more precisely painted its audience as the chief mark in this entry in Soderbergh’s franchise, which is its shining, marvelous con.
What’s more, Ocean’s Twelve is uninterested in the heist; it’s interested in the viewer and (by association) its characters. The character work in this film is the best of the trilogy, with a refreshing take on simple dialogue and interaction, the editing is finely tuned to remain loose, but not off-target from what it tries to achieve, and it’s a primary example of plot being inconsequential to the artistic endeavors of its director.
And the soundtrack, my god, just listen to the soundtrack. The marriage of sound editing and score in Ocean’s Twelve is the stuff of dreams. Is it definitively the best? I’m not sure, but it’s the only entry with Catherine Zeta-Jones, so it’s in the lead. And from my understanding, Magic Mike XXL plays to similar strengths, which have been falsely perceived as weaknesses, yet again.
Finally, we come to the conclusion of this most unexpected trilogy. In regards to how the movie plays after Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve, Thirteen is a worthy entry in the franchise. There’s a good argument for it being the best, but it’s not as fascinating (to me personally) as is the experimental entertainment that the immediate sequel had to offer, but the visuals and chemistry is never stronger than it is in the third film. Sadly, Ocean’s Thirteen is unable to accommodate Julia Roberts and Catherina Zeta-Jones. The story featured in the script just doesn’t call for the inclusion of their characters to partake in the final hurrah of the crew (which I guess I can live with).
And Jesus-fucking-Christ, the visuals (sidebar: On a recent viewing of the film, I took some screen-caps, and I ended up re-watching it immediately afterward if only to make sure that I didn’t miss any potential beauty shots). The film is practically color coded to the emotions of its featured heist moments, and though the reds often bleed over into a certain murky quality, I’m not sure yellow and blue has ever looked so good on film.
Once again, consider the audience as the mark for this final entry in Soderbergh’s series. Yes, the crew goes after Al Pacino after screwing over one of Ocean’s own, so he’s the literal mark for the movie, but it’s the only entry where the movie welcomes us in on the excitement. It goes out of its way to please us. The Ocean’s crew aren’t in it just for the money; they just want to get even. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) explains to a suave as fuck Eddie Izzard, “It doesn’t matter if we win as long as the casino loses.” And in the final moments of the film, which ends on a resounding victory for our heroes, Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) ensures us that there will be one more victory to be pulled over an unsuspecting mark: You, the viewer. Ultimately this is a trilogy that thrives on style, and who’s to say that style can’t be considered substantial?
Featured Image: Ocean’s Thirteen, Warner Bros. Pictures