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Numbers Game

  Ocean's Eleven

 

Lewis Milestone, 1960

Rating: 3.0

 

    Ocean's Eleven

 

Steven Soderbergh, 2001

Rating: 2.8

Posted: December 20, 2001

By Laurence Station

The Combatants

Two films, four decades apart. The original: the ultimate insider's club, an unabashed tribute to all things manly and debonair. The remake: A millennial update with an A-list cast possessing the highest percentage of talent ever to have appeared on People's Most Beautiful list (instead of the Rat Pack, call them the Power Pack). Neither the 1960 original, nor the 2001 update seek deep truths. They're big-time buddy movies, looking to evoke the feel of such classics as The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven. Both are all about flash and distraction.

The Question Begs

Of all films, why remake this swaggering Rat Pack classic -- a marginal film at best, overshadowed by the off-screen shenanigans of its principals? Perhaps acclaimed director Steven Soderberg (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) felt the need for a break from heavy social commentary and decided, much in the spirit of the Chairman of the Board himself, to pick up, head to Vegas, and have a little fun with his friends -- incidentally, perhaps, turning out a popcorn movie in the process.

The Criteria

Whatever Soderbergh's motivations, comparisons between the two are inevitable. So on that note, let's break both of them down to the essential components of a rousing buddy-heist flick:

  1. Camaraderie: Is there chemistry between the characters?
  2. Complexity: How believably difficult is the job at hand?
  3. The Stakes: What's the price for failure? Why should we care?

Got that? Then as Danny Ocean might say, let's do this.

1. Camaraderie

In the Rat Pack version, it comes built in, due to the fact that all eleven conspirators served together in the 82nd Airborne during World War II. Under the leadership of Sgt. Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra), they lounge, carouse, shoot pool and somehow manage to plan and execute a smash-and-grab of five Las Vegas casinos on New Year's Eve. The interaction comes across as genuine and affectionate, in no small part due to the characters' shared history -- an unbreakable bond forged during the greatest conflict of the 20th Century. Whether swapping old war stories, standing lookout while electrical boxes are being rewired, or making sure locked doors are marked for later intrusion, this Eleven works well as a team.

The 2001 reinvention lacks the original's winning charm. The characters share one common bond: Greed. Ringleaders Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Dusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) are all business, speaking in cool, clipped tones, but it comes across as forced. The characters have no connection to one another beyond the job at hand -- as opposed to Frank and his crew, who have gone to hell and back and are itching to recapture some of the thrill they enjoyed on the front lines.

Edge: Rat Pack

2. Complexity

Comparing and contrasting the technical difficulties of the two heists is a rather apples-and-oranges exercise in futility. The Vegas of the '60s just wasn't as complicated as its modern-day counterpart. Nonetheless, the Rat Pack's rudimentary smash-and-grab approach (literally -- smashing through doors and ordering the window clerks to hand over the contents of their tills) is embarrassingly easy, even given the relatively primitive security measures of the time.

The 2001 approach involves penetrating the Bellagio's seemingly impregnable vault, which (as diagrams and computer simulations make clear) is about as impossible to breach -- and nearly as heavily guarded -- as a nuclear missile silo. Even taking into account the difference in what was considered difficult in the 1960s and what's difficult today, the latter-day Ocean and Ryan take this one in a walk.

Edge: Power Pack

3. Stakes

Both films flirt with an interesting subplot, only to leave it dangling or bring it to an illogical conclusion. In the original, Beatrice Ocean (Angie Dickinson) tells husband Danny early in the film that she wants a less hectic lifestyle. The "Big Score" Danny's hatching naturally flies in the face of her desire to settle down, but it also carries the allure of never having to hustle again. Unfortunately, beyond that initial meeting (and a later, unimportant phone conversation between Beatrice and a jealous fling of Danny's), nothing comes of the couple's troubled relationship. It's simply ignored, with no payoff or satisfying resolution.

The 2001 take actually does something with Danny Ocean's estranged wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), who happens to be dating Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia, capably mastering the film's juiciest role). Benedict, by the way, just happens to be the head honcho of the Bellagio, so for Danny at least there's something more at play than cold hard cash. Of course, Danny's rivalry for Tess' affections has potentially disastrous consequences for the other members of the team. Unfortunately, this particular subplot ends with an utterly implausible resolution; Tess' baffling decision to go back to her ex-con husband (after watching a contrived video of Benedict "choosing" money over Tess) is completely ludicrous. It should be painfully obvious to the woman that she is a mere trophy to Benedict and just another score for Ocean. The clear choice: Choose neither.

As for the higher stakes -- the risk of getting caught while pulling the job -- neither picture really puts this across. The original plays it cool, even when the crew comes up snake-eyes and loses the loot (in a wonderfully appropriate manner). The stakes ultimately don't matter; it's all about rolling with the punches and looking good to the very end. The final shot of Frank and his merry men sauntering down the strip is the very definition of cool.

If the risk isn't convincingly conveyed in the original, the stakes in the remake are nonexistent. Ocean's band is so far ahead of the game that not even the audience knows how slick these cons have been until after the heist is over and everything is explained to the audience. The rules seem made up as the plot predictably unfurls, with every answer to every possible occurrence (expected or not) neatly mapped out. It's just too pat. What's more, the closing shot of Benedict's men tailing Ocean, Dusty and Tess feels more like a tacked-on ploy to tease a possible sequel than a genuine threat.

Edge: The Rat Pack

And The Winner Is...

When you're taking on the Chairman of the Board (and the board members include Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.) you'd better be ready to deliver the goods. The People Magazine contingent waltzes through the film too easily; they get away clean, never convincing us that these cons are concerned with anything other than the glare of their own star wattage. The Rat Pack fails to get away with the con and still comes out looking smooth, proving there's a definite difference between acting cocky and being cool. Frank and the boys take it by split decision.

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