Ocean’s Eleven was originally made in 1960, but I’ve not seen that version and until a couple of days ago I’d not seen the remake from 2001. I’ve often heard good things about the film from people whose opinions I respect, but sadly I was disappointed. You might wonder why I’m reviewing a film of 9 years ago rather than one that came out recently – like say, Tron – but that would requite dragging myself to the cinema rather than watching from the comfort of my own bed.
So Ocean’s Eleven is about 11 people robbing three large Casinos in Las Vagas. The leader of this motley crew of miscreants and criminals is
, who was recently released on bail from jail – proof, I suppose, that the criminal justice system is worse than useless. Ocean has a personal vendetta against the owner of these casinos because, well I’m not actually sure why, the film never really made this terribly obvious. There was something about Ocean’s wife, but then if your husband was a convicted criminal you could be forgiven to jumping ship and screwing some rich guy instead. Danny Ocean
Anyway the crew meticulously plan and execute the robbery perfectly, without any blemish or difficulty. Everyone gets on just fine (apart from one staged fight) and everything goes to plan. The bad guy gets his money stolen and the good guys drive off into the sunset, loot and woman in hand. Or do they?
The film only unconvincingly shows us that the casino owner is the ‘bad guy’ – apparently he’s pretty harsh on people he doesn’t like, which seems more like a tragic flaw than decent set up for an antagonist. Even more criminal however is the film’s failure to actually characterise the protagonists as ‘good guys’ at all. We are given no reason to like any of the eleven thieves; most of them are set up as hardened criminals, gamblers or petty thieves, none of which are likable character traits. These might be forgiven as something of a gritty dark side to their personalities if they weren’t the only things we are actually shown about the characters. Ocean does at least seem to rather like his ex-wife, but he mostly just comes across as clingy and unable to move on, especially given that the relationship is not really given any context.
This might seem to be taking the wrong approach to a film which is supposed to be admired for its fun action, stylish presentation and hunky actors, but I’m afraid all of that does not a good film make. I have nothing against well shot films and with good action sequences and attractive actors, but these should be extras that embellish the core of a film – the plot and the characters. If you remember my review of the Expendables I’m probably sounding like a stuck record at the moment, but bear with me.
Compelling characters are one thing, but I’ve spoken about why we need them before. The other thing Ocean’s Eleven lacked was conflict; the most important thing in any plot. At no point during the heist did it seem as though the team were going to fail. Ok there was one point, but by then they’d already mostly succeeded and it was pretty obvious that some ingenious solution had been devised and already enacted before the ‘SWAT Team’ arrived. The eleven members of the team never seemed to come into conflict major with one another; everything went smoothly, there was only one fight, but there didn’t seem to be much of a fall out from that.
The reason why a story needs conflict is that conflict creates tension. Once we have gained an emotional attachment to the character, causing us to want them to succeed, we then need to have those emotions tested. We need to feel the fear that the hero might die, we need to feel the excitement as we wonder how they’re going to get out of this mess. Ocean’s Eleven had no such fear or excitement because there was no reason to fear that they might not succeed. The difficulty of their task was made abundantly obvious early on, but that difficulty was never actually exploited once the heist actually began.
The other important part of conflict is conflict between characters. People fight, that’s a fact of life. When you assemble a team for a heist, especially a big team, egos are going to be at odds. You are going to have arguments and disagreements; some people are bound to dislike each other. I don’t want to keep referring back to Inception, but look at the disagreements there between the members of the team. The only time there was genuine and interesting conflict was when the sub plot between Ocean, the casino owner and Ocean’s ex-wife took centre stage. This made for some interesting conversations that actually made me want to keep watching, something that the rest of the film failed to do.
I think Ocean’s Eleven was trying, on some level, to be noir. There was some attempt to throw in a big twist and deception, but it was all very half hearted. Good noir films, like Luck Number Slevin or Fight Club have the big twist built and foreshadowed from the very start, but it still seems to come out of nowhere and shock you. There was no real built up to the twist at the end of the film and it didn’t change the nature of the story enough to be effective.
Ocean’s Eleven is a bad film with priorities in all the wrong places. But I’m guessing. Given that it’s nine years old already, my opinion is unlikely to change yours. I suppose this might also be a good time to tell you that I don’t like Snatch by Guy Richie either. Sorry if I’ve ruined your Christmas by saying that. On that subject, next week’s blog will be either late or early because there’s no way I’m blogging on Christmas Day!