Unwittingly, I seem to make controversial statements when it comes to films. For instance, I like all the installments in the Ocean’s franchise. Many look at the first, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), as the best, and dismiss the rest as pale imitations thereof. For me, there is enough of a difference between them all for them each to stand on their own. Granted, it is a remake of a 1960 Frank Sinatra flick of the same name, but since when has anyone every accused Hollywood of being original? As I have already reviewed Ocean’s Eight (2018), I figured I would take a look at the original trilogy. Get ready for a whole lot of heist talk, and witty dialog commentary.
Danny Ocean (George Clooney), the criminal mastermind who gives his name to the title crew, is set to get out of jail. Sitting before his parole board, he claims that he is a reformed man. He then promptly goes on to violate the conditions of his release by leaving the state. He does so by making contact with his fellow con artist Robert “Rusty” Ryan (Brad Pitt), who had been a close associate. The two connect while Rusty is attempting to teach Hollywood stars the secrets to playing poker, which indicates how bored is Rusty. Eager for a new challenge, Rusty listens to Danny’s proposal to steal money from three casinos in Las Vegas, each one owned by the ruthless Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Rusty is intrigued, but he recognizes that it will take more than just the two of them. Their first move is to secure financial backing from an old friend in the casino business, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). Reuben is reluctant to mess with the dangerous Terry, but agrees to the plan because he cannot pass up the opportunity to go after a arrival. With their funding in place, Danny and Rusty go about finding the rest of the people they will need to complete the job. It would be tedious to go through them all, and I will talk about them as needed throughout the rest of this review. What is important for the moment is that they fill out the number indicated in the title, and they all gather at Reuben’s to hear the plan. The three casinos they are targeting all have their take collected in the same vault, which they share. On any given night, this will be an astronomical sum. On the day they plan to make their move, a boxing match is going on, which means there will be even more cash for the taking. The predicted amount they believe will be in the vault when they finally crack it will be over $150,000,000. That is a nice chunk of change, even when split eleven ways. With this as their motivation, they set to work scouting Terry Benedict’s entire operation. With the relatively inexperienced, but natural pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) watching Terry’s every move, they are able to get an understanding of the day-to-day workings of the businessman’s casinos. They are also able to obtain the blueprints of their marked safe, building a replica so that they can practice their maneuvers ahead of the planned day. The one potential complication to come from their reconnaissance is Terry’s girlfriend, Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts). You may have noticed the last name. She is Danny’s estranged wife. When Rusty finds out that she is involved with Terry, Rusty suspects that Danny put this whole scheme in motion as a way of getting revenge on the man who took his wife away. Revenge is bad for their business because it clouds decisions. For example, when it comes to stealing millions of dollars, not just for himself but all their partners, will Danny choose her or the money? Danny claims that, according to his calculations, when the moment comes, it will not be him who makes the decision. This is helped when Danny surreptitiously meets with Tess, and tries to tell her that Terry is not the right man for her. She resists this at first, and seems to believe that the whole reason Danny is in Las Vegas is to pull off a heist. This is partially true, of course. Still, Rusty makes the decision, at least in the eyes of the rest of the crew, to take Danny off the job. Thus, on the appointed day, Danny makes one last attempt to convince Tess to come away with him. Danny is then escorted away by a couple of Terry’s thugs, and placed in a windowless room that is eventually visited by an even bigger thug, Bruiser (Scott L. Schwartz). Bruiser is supposed to beat up Danny to teach him a lesson, but instead helps Danny into the air ducts. With a little electronic wizardry thanks to resident computer hacker Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), they are able to convince Terry that he is currently under attack, when they have yet to truly pull off the heist. Terry calls the police, which is also intercepted by Livingston, and the thieves send in their own Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. They are then able to blow open the vault, and take out all the money. Terry does not realize he has been tricked until it is too late, but immediately suspects Danny’s involvement. Before anyone is the wiser, Danny able to make his way back to the room where his beating is supposed to be taking place. When Terry walks in, he finds Danny. Terry presses Danny, and with Tess watching on closed circuit television (CCTV), the casino owner says he would give up his relationship with Tess in exchange for information leading to the return of the money. Tess witnesses this admission and is able to make it to the police car taking Danny away in time to admit that she still has feelings for him. After serving a few more months for having violated his probation, Danny emerges once more from incarceration, much richer than the last time, with Rusty waiting to drive him and Tess away.
Ocean’s Eleven is a heist film, which makes it problematic for a practicing Catholic to enjoy. There is a commandment about stealing, after all. This is assuaged somewhat by how they handle the character of Terry Benedict. Terry is somewhat of a mustache twirling villain, placing his love of money above all other concerns. Because of this, it can make it easier to root for people who are trying to steal from him. Still, that does not make their actions right. There are a lot of bad people in possessions of fortunes, but that does not give anyone moral permission to take it from them. This is true even if you believe they obtain their wealth through ill gains. In either case, you are taking something from somebody, making your own what is not yours. By any definition, Biblical or legal, that is stealing. That is a sin. Hence, in this film you are expected to have sympathy for thieves. This is not why I enjoy the film.
Ocean’s Eleven, like the sequels, is good because it is a clever plot and has witty dialog. In some respects, too, it is not a heist film. Rather, it is a love story. Love is often a matter of chance, and chance is a consistent theme throughout. Danny says it best when he talks about how the house, meaning the casino or cosmic luck in general, always wins. What it takes to beat the odds is patiently waiting until that perfect hand. You then bet big and take the house for everything it is worth. Love works in a similar way, though it is not always a sure thing. Take my word on this idea: you can wait for what you believe is the right situation and still get it wrong. We keep coming back for more, though, because the potential payoff is worth it. Danny risks more jail time and possible dismemberment at Terry’s hands in order to show his love for Tess. Granted, the money is a motivation, too, but he is willing to give that up for her. In any case, it is a gamble.
What is less of a gamble is me saying that you will enjoy Ocean’s Eleven. Yes, there are seemingly good guys doing bad things. I wish they could have found some other outlet for Danny to reunite with his wife. Regardless, if you appreciate fun banter, a neat story, and good performances, this is the film for you. I pray that it does not lead you into a life of crime!