Hollywood's familiar tendency to repeat itself, in the form of sequels and remakes, occasionally results in some entertaining and even artistically successful motion pictures --- The Empire Strikes Back, the second chapter in the Star Wars series, for example, and that great American document, The Godfather, Part II. Remakes as different as, say, the second version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (although the director claims to dislike them) justify the practice, even suggesting that duplicating a previous movie matches it with a special moment in history, attuning it to the whispered music of the Zeitgeist.
The new Steven Soderbergh movie, Ocean's Twelve, presents a special case, a rare bird indeed, the sequel to a remake, with perhaps some overtones of self-plagiarism. His initial remake of the 1960 Ocean's Eleven in 2001 apparently earned profits large enough to encourage production of the present film. The new picture reunites the large and highly popular cast of stars and once again launches them on a big caper, actually two capers, one in Amsterdam, the other in Rome, complicated by a couple of related subplots.
Danny Ocean (George Clooney) once again summons his crew of experts, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, and Bernie Mac, to deal with a most troubling problem --- Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whose casino they robbed in the last flick, has tracked them all down, and threatens them with a slow, painful death unless they repay the loot, with interest.
The gang naturally concludes to embark on additional thefts to pay off Garcia --- it's what they do, after all. When they plan and execute an extremely complicated job in Amsterdam, which involves underwater work in the canals, they discover that the greatest thief in Europe, Francois Toulour (Vincent Cassel) has beat them to it, a circumstance that further thickens the plots.
The movie then revolves around a series of related endeavors --- Ocean's gang needs to steal the most valuable Fabergé egg in the world from a museum in Rome, hold off the menace of Garcia and his thugs, elude an international police squad headed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and outwit Toulour, who wagers that he will steal the egg before Ocean's gang. In a rapid succession of chess moves, every time the crew executes some deft maneuver, the police forestall them, so that they must continually change and improvise, all the while attempting to figure out and head off Toulour's plan.
In keeping with the lighthearted complications of its plots and plans, the movie maintains a high level of visual energy to match the confusions of the action. As in one of his most successful previous works, Traffic, Soderbergh employs a wide array of cinematographic devices to provide an appropriate equivalent for the scams, switches, and subterfuges of the characters and their schemes.
He uses flashbacks to illustrate retrospective narratives, flashbacks within flashbacks, slow motion, fast motion, razzle dazzle montage, black and white footage to underline past events in the midst of color, overhead shots, innumerable tricky angles, and even sideways shooting to prepare the audience for perhaps the cleverest narrative trick of them all, when Julia Roberts as Danny Ocean's wife impersonates Julia Roberts and is almost outed by Bruce Willis, also as himself.
Aside from the rich complexity of subject and style, and following the example of the original, Ocean's Twelve sparkles with the energy and high spirits of its cast. The crew of oddballs and eccentrics, the contemporary equivalent of the Rat Pack of the first movie, most of them with strong, even exaggerated screen presences, create a good deal of humor, some of it derived from the rapid-fire repartee, some of it from the sense that they are all enjoying the hell out of making the movie. George Clooney's easy, relaxed virility plays nicely against Julia Roberts's tense anxiety, while once again, Brad Pitt steals most of the scenes he appears in, underacting with a nicely offhand style.
In placing the action in Europe the movie in a sense leans toward the tone of the European caper flick, which tends toward the comic instead of the melodramatic in the American tradition. The stunning location shooting, especially of Rome and some palatial villas in other parts of Italy, emphasizes its charm and sophistication: it's all about the good life, Italian style, with nobody worried about anything serious in the commission of a crime.
Like it or not, American or European, the caper flick places the audience on the side of the criminals, which turns us all into accomplices and then forces us to enjoy it --- and we do.
Ocean's Twelve (PG-13), starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Julia Roberts, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Vincent Cassel, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Shaobo Qin, Cherry Jones; written by George Noldi; directed by Steven Soderbergh. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.