Ocean’s 12 – Expectations and Editing, Cliches and Conventions

The way Ocean’s 12 reverses your typical Gather The Team montage, and specifically Ocean’s 11‘s version, by having Andy Garcia track down all our original scallywags to threaten and extort them into the movie’s heists. None of this is ‘new’ or ‘fresh,’ it’s a setup we’ve seen a hundred times. We’re watching to see how it’s done, and then to see what comes of it.

This trope is one I’ll never get tired of, so long as it’s done with the right amount of panache, colour (figurative, though heavily stylised with literal colour is fine, too), camera movements and edit dancing sweetly with the score and/or soundtrack. Don’t reinvent the game, just make it flashy.

Soderbergh knows his flash, complete with film grain and mega-watt superstars and neon lights.

Even in ‘merely’ comedic setup shots, cutting from red and blue and inky blacks to green and yellow and watery murk.

The classical “sweeping down the stairwell” shot . . . but corrugated aluminium steps shot handheld, and not red-velvet-carpeted steps shot by a camera on a smooth sweeping crane.

Adding to the level of difficulty is the mirror, the multiple rack focuses and exposure changes, the one-take style with small margins of error and cheating built in.

The use of Topher-Grace-as-himself-en-ridiculo-absurdo setting up the later gag with Julia Roberts, which of course was strongly teased/hyped in the film’s trailers.

The perfect coolness with which Brad Pitt responds to his car blowing up with merely: huh. He perfectly plays into that slick movie Badass Dude Competency chill which would come the next year in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) and with which he played and played against a decade and a half later in his perfect, Oscar-grabbing performance in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019).

The highlight for me is that closeup-rifle-trigger-to-wideshot-running-man transition, with the colours switching hard and the sound mixing splitting the difference between a bullet and a running-man’s-dress-shoe-hitting-the-corporate-carpeted-hallway-floors.

Cheadle shows the sort of dark comedy chops which he would be able to put to full use as Marty Kaan on House of Lies years later (2012), which could be described as Succession in investment banking firm or a less bro-and-sports-tastic Ballers. (All compliments of the highest order, if that wasn’t clear.)

The performances are perfectly pitched, the same heightened energy from all of the ensemble, presented like their introductions: according to character. It’s a version of the Kill Bill cadre; these two films coming out within a year of each other would set tone and style for the next decade.

Soderbergh even gets in some meta-comentary about F*** with bleeps because the studio wanted a slick show about sex and murder and romanticising thievery to be able to pass with a PG-13 rating. The scene uses the same comedy principle as an SNL skit: the first time the sound edit joke is surprising; the next few times it’s funny; then the repetition feels just a little much; then you repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until it comes full circle back around to hilarity.

Speaking of hilarity, Elliot Gould, dear god, just pulling off those glasses is a Herculean feat, and he makes it and everything else look easy. By which I mean, he perfectly makes everything else look like it involves operating at the peak edge of well-dressed, flop-sweating panic.

Everything has a layered meaning, including lines of dialogue like “for a moment there, I almost forgot your name” making us think Linus is breaking because all he wants is recognition to soothe his insecurities (which he had also consoled not-Julia-Roberts as having) but also in retrospect hinting at the relationship between Linus and his mother / interrogator.

More hinting: a Miller’s Crossing (1990) reference puts Oceans in the Coen Cinematic Universe, or at least establishes the CCU exists in the Ocean’s universe.

The heist plot is, well, much more boring than Ocean’s 11‘s, because no heist as glamorous as ‘Casino heist.’ Ocean’s 12 tries its best, going hard with ‘jewel’ and ‘involves-Entrapment (1999)-style lazer gymnastics’, and in keeping with its many genre reverses, genderflips the usual lazer sequence.

Speaking of, it’s not coincidence Catherine Zeta Jones figures into both Oceans and Entrapment – as the also-CZJ-starring Chicago (2002) proclaims: it’s about the razzle dazzle. The way she leans over the table in that interrogation room, well. She knows exactly what she’s doing.

Everyone here knows exactly what they’re doing: hitting their marks perfectly, and their willing marks are us.

The plot resolution may technically play fair but cops out pretty hard, the tablesetting for 13 is unnecessarily obvious, and the “it’s all about FAMILY!” is done better and more earnestly in The Fast and The Furious, but it’s mostly carried by the editing, the style and colour and crosscutting and cliches distracting us so we don’t mind too much.

Ocean’s 12 doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but knows where it sits in cinema, wears its influences on its sleeve, deploys its stars perfectly, and has a style still resonating throughout world cinema from The Thieves (2012) to The World is Yours (2017) to Hustlers (2019).

We’ve got Brad Pitt eating confections, more sexy trenchcoats than you can shake a stick at, and stars poking fun at themselves while having the times of their lives.

In other words, we get what we paid for.

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