Reviewing the Old School: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

When I was young, real young, I watched the original Ocean’s 11. The one with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and a dozen other of the biggest names in film and music at the time. I don’t remember much about the film (I was like fucking eight years old), just that I was a bit of a fan of Sinatra at the time and the guy who put the film on, a former neighbour who was still a close friend of the family, was always more of Dean Martin fan. Or at least he was quicker to sing Dean Martin songs. Love that guy. This anecdote has nothing to do with what I think of the 2001 remake. I just like to mention when I’ve seen the original.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as the titular Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt as his best friend Rusty Ryan, Andy Garcia as the “smart as he is ruthless” Terry Benedict, Julia Roberts as Danny’s estranged wife Tess, and nine other fantastic actors playing fantastic roles, Ocean’s Eleven is a movie about a bunch of professional crooks robbing three casinos. Impossible, we are told at the beginning of the film. A suicide mission. Can’t be done. Danny and Rusty must be nuts. Must be. And yet they seem so delightfully sane.

I wanna take a moment to praise director Soderberg and, just as importantly, editor Stephen Mirrione. This movie is beautifully directed and, just as importantly, expertly cut. The shots are intimate but inclusive of large parts of the cast (without revealing the plot), fast without ever being confusing, with perfectly timed reactions and dialogue from the characters, and it’s all put together masterfully, never breaking flow even as it cuts back and forth between time and perspectives at the end. It’s a slow burn heist film that never feels slow. And it doesn’t treat you like an idiot. When they reveal how the heist works you feel like you’re being let in on a big secret, previous lines of dialogue and focus shots suddenly make sense, like a magician revealing how they pulled off a particularly entertaining trick.

This is one of those movies that occupies a particularly nostalgic piece of my heart, as do the two sequels. It was one of those films that my best mates and I all watched and watched again, not as quoted as movies like Troy or Gladiator but still formative. On the one hand the characters in this film are the epitome of cool. Even the losers in the group – the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), Livingstone (Eddie Jemison) and Linus (Matt Damon) – have their own sense of style and intelligence that they own. For all their quirks and bad accents (I don’t care Don Cheadle, I love Basher anyway) these people are the best at what they do. Proper villains. And you love them for it. Even Terry Benedict, the antagonist of the piece, is fucking awesome. He’s got this soft monotone, constantly cool and calm even when the shit is hitting the fan and he’s obviously seething with rage. Andy Garcia is a bad-arse. Not necessarily a great antagonist – he doesn’t seem to hinder Danny and Rusty’s plans at all – but a great character.

More importantly is the relationship between the characters. There’s a bond between them all that is just a joy to watch. Squad goals and all that. Y’see Danny and Rusty don’t finish each other’s sentences, they answer them. Knowing someone so well you can talk to someone without needing to talk? That’s a friendship right there. As it is with all the others. The Malloy brothers, constantly irritating each other yet still obviously close remind me of two of my other mates. Livingstone is that guy or gal that everyone else is constantly trying to push out of their comfort zone, watching from a distance, knowing they’ll do it but never being quite sure. Same with Linus, though they’re less sure and are planning on telling him everything he did wrong in as loving a way as is possible after their massive fuck-up. Not sure who the Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin) is in my circle of friends. Wait, yeah I do. Don’t worry, you don’t know him. Someone who’ll occasionally voice an opinion and only one other person will have any idea what he’s saying. Shit, that might actually be me as well. Then there’s Frank C (Bernie Mac), a good guy who’s able to turn a discussion about moisturiser into a threat with a firm handshake. Quietly confident, but also the guy who knows what everyone else is up to.

I love this film.

It’s funny how it’s overtaken the memory of the original, y’know? I mean, this sort of happened at the same time as a couple of other remakes from the sixties like The Italian Job and Get Carter. I actually don’t mind the remakes all that much, genuinely enjoyed The Italian Job, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re remakes. The originals are still the classics in everyone’s minds, while the remakes were just throwaways. That could be because of Michael Caine. It’s probably because of Michael Caine. Doesn’t change the fact that Ocean’s Eleven surpassed Ocean’s 11 in the cultural mindset. I bet there are kids right now who have no idea that there even was a 1960s original. I bet there are grown-arse adults who have no idea. And I don’t mind. ‘Cause I love this film.

Reviewing the old school: Troy (2004)

Mate, there is so much wrong with this film. I think the worst part is that it could have been so much better if they’d actually used the source material properly. Y’know, with all the gods and magic and not trying to make us sympathise with Paris of Troy. Seriously, you read the Iliad? You know what we’d call that guy in the modern parlance? A date-rapist. Doesn’t matter that he had help from the Goddess of Love instead of roofies, he still fucks Helen without her conscious consent. That ain’t right.

I don’t get why they cut all the supernatural stuff out of the story. It certainly wouldn’t have made the movie any worse, and it certainly could’ve made the story a whole lot more interesting (imagine Sean Bean’s Odysseus having a D and M with Athena, the Goddess of Just War and Wisdom herself, on the beach beside his ship, or perhaps Ares, the God of War, stalking the battlefield with a leering smile at all the carnage). Could’ve been epic. And it’s not like we’d have a problem with the whole ‘Gods and goddesses interfering with the lives of mortals’ thing. I mean, The Mummy and it’s sequel came out five and three years before, respectively, and they did pretty well with the whole weird foreign supernatural thing. Hell, bloody Disney went and covered the same sort of ground as Troy, but including the divine intervention, with its animated film Hercules (and the great spin-off series about his high school years).

Maybe they were worried that if there was too much Deus Ex Machina going on we wouldn’t be able to take Brad Pitt’s flowing golden hair or Eric Bana’s tinted curls seriously. Maybe they were worried that they’d have to make Orlando Bloom the bad guy who dooms his whole city because he just couldn’t keep it in his pants when he met a hot girl who wasn’t interested. Maybe I’m giving the rest of the film too much credit and it would still be shit anyway.

Probably that last one, but the point still stands.

The acting isn’t great. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana ham it up with that weird pseudo-English accent that non-English actors are expected to put on whenever they’re in a historical period earlier than the 1600s. While Brad Pitt never seems to take it seriously (understandably), Bana actually seemed to get better as the film went on and I think he was the right choice for Hector, noble and doomed and the only one with the common sense to say “let’s just give Helen back to the Greeks, Paris will get over it and even if he doesn’t it isn’t worth going to fucking war over.” There’s a lot of great actors in this film, and they do their damned best with the material. Special props to Brian Cox who plays the role of the villainous, prideful, megalomaniacal Agamemnon with a surprising amount of subtlety. Sean Bean’s Odysseus seems woefully underused. I mean, they don’t even kill him. How you can put Sean Bean in your movie and have him play the one character that everyone knows is gonna survive?

The direction and editing are an overlong mess. It’s a two and a half hour long film and not nearly enough of that is filled with the kind of character moments to actually make us care. Some of it just seems painfully unnecessary. Case in point, the film opens with a map of the Aegean. No voice over, no music, no intro credits. Just a fucking map on the screen for like thirty seconds to a minute. Maybe that minute could have been spent fleshing out Ajax a little more, so we actually give a shit when he dies. Patroclus’ character could’ve been fleshed out a little better as well. I think fantastically named director Wolfgang Petersen was trying to channel old classics, the grand Biblicals and biopics like Ben HurSpartacus and Julius Caesar but it just doesn’t work. It’s too slow and not nearly as epic as we’d come to expect by then.

For all its flaws, and it has a lot of flaws (a lot of flaws) I absolutely love this film. My mates and I can basically communicate in movie and television quotes. Simpsons make up the bulk of our source material, with the two Hot Shots! films, the two Airplane (Flying High!) films, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings trilogy filling out the rest of our situational conversations. Troy occupies a special place for us as being the soundtrack for some of our most (or, I suppose, least) memorable nights of drunken debauchery. Someone refusing another beer would be met with a bellow of “Drink you lazy whore! Poles are sobering!” (several of my friends being of Polish origin). Midway through the night you’d likely hear a cry that “The taxi waits for us, I say we make him wait a little longer!” Someone skoling back beer after beer would be cheered on with “The man wants to die!” There was more than one occasion where we’d take Achilles’ speech at the prow of his ship before hitting the beach of Troy and adjust the wording, to fit our school and desired outcome “…my brothers of the schooner… do you know what’s waiting on the other side of the bar? Immortality! Take it, it’s yours!” I watch this film and I’m not thinking about the acting or the plot or the story, the dramatic lines are triggering memories of long nights and close friends.

So yeah. It’s a bloody terrible movie, but I love it dearly. Still, don’t watch it. It’s not worth it and might sour you on a couple of great actors. Read the Iliad and Odyssey instead. They’re classics for a reason.