Ocean’s Twelve: Looking back at an unfairly maligned sequel
Mark Harrison | On 24, Jun 2018
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta Jones, Vincent Cassel
Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is a really hard act to follow. Stylish, entertaining, and impeccably put together, the film deserves to be revered as one of the best remakes ever made. While neither of the two sequels are quite as strong, the trilogy as a whole feels underrated on average, and the unfairly maligned Ocean’s Twelve seems to have damaged the consensus.
Admittedly, the film’s first act is a little bumpy. The plot kicks off when casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) catches up with Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and the rest of the gang (Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Eddie Jemison, and Shaobo Qin), after a tip-off from a mysterious source. He wants his $160 million back – with interest – and that’s what spurs them to get back together for another job.
This kick-off smacks of sequel-induced necessity. It’s not the most propulsive start to the story, but then the story is a lot shaggier than in either of the first or third movies. The key fact here is that when Warner Bros decided to make a sequel, they took Honour Among Thieves, an original spec script by screenwriter George Nolfi, and rewrote it as a sequel to Ocean’s Eleven.
So, the gang travel to Europe, where they encounter their unknown adversary, a master thief called Toulour, aka. the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), who has set up Ocean’s lot in order to prove he is better than them. Travelling around Europe on their way to steal the Fabergé Imperial Coronation Egg before Toulour does, they also run afoul of Rusty’s ex, Isabel (Catherine Zeta Jones), an Interpol agent looking to settle some scores of her own.
There’s a lot to pack in, and, unsurprisingly, the second film has the longest running time of the trilogy. Employing flashbacks and red herrings to a much greater degree than either of the other films, it’s a more convoluted watch and if you’re not fully on-board with these movies’ style, certain plot twists could easily irritate on first viewing.
The reason why Ocean’s Twelve stands up. though, is the integrity of the cast. While the first film coasts magnificently on the presumed screen presence of each star, this one packs in a lot of character development. Here, we actually get to watch Danny, Rusty, and Linus at work, rather than Clooney, Pitt, and Damon. In between the grinding gears of the plot, an interlude where Danny and Rusty watch Italian Happy Days while one tries to open up to the other about their personal life speaks to the more characterful focus of this instalment.
Soderbergh plays with the setting by taking inspiration from the classic European New Wave in his tone and camera movements – for those who don’t know, cinematographer Peter Andrews is to the director as the Night Fox is to Toulour. Visual style aside, Ocean’s Twelve breaks the fourth wall from both sides throughout its running time.
This line of rule-breaking meta-humour starts with a crack about the ensemble job being known as “Ocean’s Eleven”, played as if they can’t fathom why Clooney’s character is top-billed in their own universe. And then there’s the looky-loo gambit, where Tess Ocean becomes the 12th member of the crew, and her resemblance to Hollywood superstar Julia Roberts is played up to either ingenious or infuriating effect, depending on your view.
It’s a funny bit of business that’s going alongside the heist, particularly when Bruce Willis jumps in as well, but the main meta-story here, and in the entire trilogy, is the development of Damon’s Linus. Coming to this film post-Bourne, he’s coming forward and saying he’s ready to take a larger role, while the more experienced characters are telling him he’s not. That resolves by the end of Ocean’s Thirteen, but for this middle chapter, there’s a truly delightful punchline involving Cherry Jones as an FBI agent.
Ocean’s Twelve is nowhere near as tight as Eleven, with its more is more approach and smirking cinematic gymnastics, but it’s far better than its Honour Among Thieves origin would suggest. Over time, it has been reassessed as a more experimental Hollywood sequel than most of those made in the 2000s and it lives up to that reputation. You can’t explain away everything that doesn’t work in that fashion, but taken at face value, this underrated sequel is more entertaining than its reputation would have you believe.