Steven Soderbergh went big with Ocean’s Eleven.
It came in 2001 near the tail end of his big time breakout that began with Erin Brokovich and was cemented by Traffic. The series as a whole are probably the most viewer-friendly films he’s ever made and that’s not just because of the star power behind them.
A lot of Soderbergh’s films have had star power. His Solaris remake had George Clooney and The Informant! had Matt Damon, yet those were two more challenging films that found less response than Clooney, Damon and Brad Pitt all together did. Ocean’s Eleven is a combination of Soderbergh unique intricacies and Hollywood’s glossy finish.
Like the greatest of great heist films, some of which Jean-Pierre Melville put his name to, Ocean’s Eleven is a bold plan. The cavalcade of star power plans an unprecedented heist – to steal from Las Vegas casinos. With Clooney and Pitt as ringleaders, the plan formulates and off we go.
The entire film kind of follows three interesting steps to the heist. Step one: the collection of rag tag individuals dumb enough to risk the heist. Step two: planning with those individuals to make sure things go off smoothly. Step three: the heist.
Soderbergh devotes a lot of time to the final two steps (but mostly the heist) and it draws comparisons to films like Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Jules Dassin’s Rififi, two of the greatest films you’ll find in the genre. In those films, the heists are intricate and carefully thought out. But what stands out in both of those films are the actual heist scenes. Both Melville and Dassin film them like art inside of art. Rififi is famous for its 30 minute heist scene shot in pure silence, with no dialogue between the men and no music faking nerve. Le Cercle Rouge has a similar motive in its heist.
Of course, there was no way Soderbergh could have pulled that off with Ocean’s Eleven, even if he wanted to, and gotten the same response from modern culture that he ended up receiving. Despite that, his heist scene is also impressive. It revolves more around the winding bits and pieces of the team of men pulling off the heist than the anticipation and nerve that Dassin and Melville formulated their burglaries off of.
Differentiating from the more tragic heist films of the past, you kind of get the feeling all along that Ocean’s Eleven isn’t going to end tragically and that it is predetermined success. Even with that thought imprinted in my mind, I thought Soderbergh maintained a sense of dignity and honesty in his heist by throwing his audience off just as much as the men robbing the casino threw off the casino’s security.
I’ve yet to watch the second and third films in the series but I really look forward to them both. I suspect Soderbergh will be giving more of the same and I can’t really think of a reason to believe otherwise. But with how cool Ocean’s Eleven actually was, I can’t see that being such a bad thing.