It must take some of the pressure off a director trying to make a successful sequel when the original film had no pretensions to be anything other than a clever, star-studded bit of entertainment. But sometimes films transcend their lack of pretension. In remaking the Rat Pack caper comedy Ocean's Eleven in 2001, director Steven Soderbergh wove a genuinely touching story of marital reconciliation into the margins of a film that was ultimately as much about the pleasure of a job well done as the particulars of doing it. Soderbergh meticulously captures the big heist, but the shots of his crooks lingering in a Debussy-scored afterglow by the Bellagio Hotel fountains provide the film's most lasting image.
Reuniting the gang for another go, Ocean's Twelve loses both the romantic friction—in spite of a game, sparkless attempt at a crook-and-cop romance between Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones—and any hint of thematic depth. What it retains, however, is a playful sense of style, that combines with an anything-goes spirit. Those don't always compensate for what's missing, but they at least keep the film lively. Picking up the story three years later, Ocean's Twelve finds Clooney and the gang taking little joy in their crime-free projects. When old foil Andy Garcia catches up with them to demand the money he lost, plus interest, they seem almost relieved. Heading first to Amsterdam, then to Rome, they resume their life of crime while chasing bigger and bigger scores and bumping heads with French master thief Vincent Cassel.
That's the plot. But the film's really about its stars' breezy, low-key charm and Soderbergh's desire to pay tribute to the way narrative and stylistic tricks inspired by the French New Wave and its '70s aftermath can serve mainstream entertainment. It worked better before, but it still works here, particularly as Soderbergh pushes the envelope further. At one point, the film expends a lot of energy in setting up a heist, then makes a jarring jump forward in time, then lets the crime play out in a flashback that barely takes two minutes. Elsewhere, Soderbergh plunges Roberts into a postmodern hall-of-mirrors heist that culminates with the Pretty Woman star sharing cell space with some grotesque prostitutes. This all unfolds to the accompaniment of found-music snippets from old Eurothrillers, plus a David Holmes score that works to find that sound's contemporary equivalent. As with Ocean's Eleven, a cloud of cool carries the film. Watching it drift, it becomes easy to forget that its predecessor became a better film when it found ways to touch the ground.