Like a thief in the night, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise has crept back into theaters this weekend for a new round of criminal thrills and a fresh multi-million payday. Much of the basic framework remains the same, but times are changing, and our cultural evolution prevails as no more apparent today than in Hollywood. George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and his team of expert bandits have been retired, and in his absence Sandra Bullock and her crew of lovely looters are here to pick up the slack while simultaneously upholding the #MeToo movement in 2018.
As a remake of the 1960 Frank Sinatra film of the same name, Steven Soderbergh’s original Ocean’s reboot and its sequels reign as some of the most popular films of the early 2000s. After a string of low-budget failures, Ocean’s 11 emerged during the director’s breakthrough into the mainstream. Offering more than just a staggering ensemble cast, Soderbergh’s film represented his prowess in fluid direction, and set a standard for heist films to follow. Examples of imitators include 2011’s Tower Heist, as well as Soderbergh’s spiritual successor Logan Lucky from last year.
Due to Bernie Mac’s unfortunate passing, as well as a desire to go out on a high note, Soderbergh has consistently refuted rumors of another sequel. His film Logan Lucky, however, signifies he still has a soft spot for his refined heist recipe, as he stayed on to produce the female-led spinoff of his trilogy, though still passing on directing duties for Ocean’s 8. In his wake, Pleasantville and Hunger Games director Gary Ross has stepped in to keep the franchise going, and he’s simply not as confident behind the camera, but the exceptional new cast helps obscure the rough edges.
Sandra Bullock stars as Danny Ocean’s estranged sister Debbie, who clearly shares his penchant for high-stakes burglary. Bullock, who is known for her brazen intensity, is a piece of impeccable casting; she fits the role like a glove. We meet Debbie in exactly the way we meet Danny, as she is being interviewed in consideration for parole. She sells the same style of hogwash that Danny used to be set free, and she immediately begins work assembling the dream team for executing her fantasy: the most intricate, risky, and rewarding jewel heist the world has ever seen.
Her crew involves first and foremost her right-hand woman, Lou, played by Cate Blanchett, who has proven time and time again an excellence with slimy characters, and brings her A-game here. Mindy Kaling shines as Amita, an expert jeweler. Helena Bonham Carter is a delight as Rose Weil, a neurotic struggling fashion designer. Sarah Paulson deservingly receives the opportunity for notable film work here as Tammy, a mother and former collaborator of Debbie’s, while Rihanna and Nora “Awkwafina” Lum bring some laughs as a hacker and a pickpocket.
Sandra Bullock and her gang of swindlers might be the craftiest thieves in town, but it’s often Anne Hathaway who steals the spotlight as Daphne Kluger, a conceited prima donna actress. Hathaway wastes no material in constructing a priceless semi-self-parody as the character serves as the centerpiece of the crew’s scheme, that of stealing the Toussaint, a $150 million diamond necklace as Kluger models it during the Met Gala. The filmmakers utilize the event to cram in as many cameos as possible, such as Kim Kardashian and Anna Wintour to name a few.
But while the female spin and the sizzling cast effortlessly resurrect this old series, the direction and writing are below par with the franchise’s best. Gary Ross delivered an excellent introductory Hunger Games installment, but the difference Frances Lawrence brought to the sequels painfully demonstrated Ross’s weakness with use of visuals, as well as overall cohesion. With that in mind, one would expect the difference between a maestro like Soderbergh and Ross to be even more extreme, and it is very noticeable, though not quite as stark as one would fear.
And that brings us to the script, which was written by – big surprise – Gary Ross, as well as Olivia Milch. Perhaps due to pressure by Soderbergh, who tends to exert meticulous control over his projects, or simply because of lack of ambition, the duo saw fit to simply transpose the same exact plot as Ocean’s 11 to a concept involving women. All of the beats are the same – an Ocean is released from prison, he/she gathers an expert team to carry out an impossible heist that is partly to get back at an ex, and the whole plan (including a decoy plot) plays out for the viewer.
The level of detail in the scheme is impressive overall, but several moments resonate as far less convincing than Soderbergh’s trilogy, such as when Tammy fakes her way into working for Vogue just for recon, or when Debbie just happens to know the insurance investigator (James Corden) working the Touissant case. Speaking of which, Ross struggles at maintaining tension after the actual heist is carried out, and the tail end of the film is a drag. This ladies’ spinoff is certainly an improvement over Ocean’s 12, but Ocean’s 8 will never compete with Soderbergh’s’ original classic.
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