The last time we encountered the guys and gals of the “Ocean” films, they were stuck in a hepcat paralysis. 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve” wasn’t a disastrous picture, but it was a cataclysmic mistake in execution, stripping away the friendly magnetism of “Ocean’s Eleven” to pursue an insidery tone that felt exclusionary and humorless. From the introductory ribbons of colors backing the main titles, it’s obvious “Ocean’s Thirteen” is here to say “I’m sorry” to anyone who was shut out of the merriment last time around.
Willie Bank (Al Pacino) is a ruthless Vegas casino owner bent on buying up The Strip. When Bank screws over business partner Rueben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould), Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his boys (including Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) are herded in to even the score for the ailing old-school casino czar. Using careful planning and research, the team hopes to disrupt the grand opening of Bank’s latest gambling palace. But, as with any revenge scheme, not everything goes smoothly.
“Ocean’s Thirteen” won’t tax your senses. Steven Soderbergh’s latest caper isn’t intended to wow with complexity or depth; it’s more a ride down the scenic cinematic highway with the top down and the music blasting. It plays it safe, perhaps too safe for more demanding attention spans, but it does so with a jubilant charisma and enough neon-infused spirit to make it impossible to hate.
The ingredients are straightforward: after jet-setting around Europe the last time out, the action is back in Vegas; the evil of an arrogant casino warlord has been dialed up with Pacinoesque deliciousness; it’s a team again, with “Thirteen” finding something for everyone to do, including Bernie Mac and bestowing the strongest bellylaugh subplot to Casey Affleck; David Holmes’s score is as rockin’ and ready-to-wear as ever; the new film discards Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones – this a good thing, trust me – and Soderbergh returns to the multi-dimension filmmaking he’s iffy with, only in this picture it opens up the shenanigans wide and encompasses a plethora of signals and character placement that helps the puzzle of the heist feel complex, yet welcoming.
Within the gleeful tale of revenge lies a lament for old Vegas that lifts the film away from a monotone cash grab. It’s an idea that’s threaded throughout the entire picture; the remorse that Vegas, which once stood for goomba honor and a cocktail justice, has now been replaced by corporations, complex machines, and extravagant real estate nobody can wrap their minds around. Forget all the twists and turns, just watching Clooney and Pitt stand in front of the Bellagio tracing their memories of the old casinos is almost enough of a movie for me.
Also rather surprising is watching Soderbergh lace all three films into a trilogy of sorts. Made as an apology for “Twelve,” “Thirteen” nevertheless furthers the story left off in the last sequel. As much as I didn’t care for Danny’s European vacation, having cat burglar Toulour (Vincent Cassel) pop in to gum up the works adds a nice range to the adventure and retains a sense of integrity to the franchise. Soderbergh might’ve screwed up the last film, but he’s not going to cry about it.
“Ocean’s Eleven” was the experimental hipster swerve; a caper film that bravely took a gamble on its Rat Pack appeal and tilted the screen with its swindler magic. “Ocean’s Twelve” overstated that cool cache, assumed too much from the audience, and lost itself in a tar pit of irreverence. “Ocean’s Thirteen” plays to known quantities, but with a graceful sense of ease and a sparkly smile a mile wide. It’s easy to swallow entertainment, but remains a roaring good time; one of the best cinema experiences of the year.Rating: A