OK, gang, three capers are enough

Times Staff Writer

“Ocean’s Thirteen” shows that while you can counterfeit many things in Hollywood, you can’t fake inspiration. The latest Steven Soderbergh-directed caper movie starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt is better than the fiasco that was “Ocean’s Twelve” (how could it not be?) but not as engaging as “Ocean’s Eleven.” One of the film’s characters sums it up best: “It’s not a great idea, but it’s an idea.”

Even though it was itself a remake of the 1960 film that starred Frank Sinatra and his celebrated pals, Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” was inspired in its own way, a lively, effervescent film that brought a little pleasure into a lot of lives.

“Ocean’s Thirteen,” by contrast, is no more than a reasonable facsimile of that film, the best copy money can buy but a copy nevertheless. Though it’s certainly serviceable as the second sequel to a remake, it lacks the brio and elan that made the 2001 film such a treat.

How could it be otherwise? Though Soderbergh and the returning members of his cast, including Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould, clearly enjoy working together, these smooth, professional, soulless films have become something of a Hollywood sinecure, a sure source of income requiring little heavy lifting.

Perhaps because the self-satisfied “Ocean’s Twelve” was so unfocused, the “Thirteen” script, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Rounders”) has gone back to basics. The new film is thankfully straight-ahead, a nuts-and-bolts effort that returns Ocean’s gang to its “let’s rob a casino in Las Vegas” roots.


Though Andy Garcia’s malevolent casino owner Terry Benedict is back from both previous “Ocean’s,” the targets this time are Willy Bank (Al Pacino channeling Phil Spector) and his no-nonsense associate Abigail Sponder (an underutilized Ellen Barkin), the principals in a brand-new casino called, yes, the Bank.

The Bank was supposed to be a partnership between Mr. Bank and Reuben “I used to mean something in this town” Tishkoff (Gould). But Bank turns on his erstwhile partner and Ocean associate, sending Tishkoff to the hospital with a massive coronary.

Enter Ocean himself (Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Pitt) and the rest of the players. They figure that an attempt to break the Bank will give Tishkoff a reason to live and exact the proper measure of revenge twice over. For the gang not only wants to take Bank’s money, they want to undermine his determination to get the coveted Royal Review Board Five Diamond Award (given in the real world by the American Automobile Assn.) for his new hotel.

Much of “Ocean’s Thirteen” is taken up with the complex planning necessary for these elaborate scams. This is entertaining up to a point, but sometimes it seems that the entire movie is an elaborate sleight-of-hand maneuver, a series of manufactured crises designed to divert us from how little is actually going on.

Also problematic is the nature of the film’s foible-filled characters. When they were introduced in the first film, the tics and neuroses of the gang members were amusing, but seeing things like the insecurity of Damon’s Linus Caldwell and the bickering of the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) repeated again and again soon loses its appeal.

Also a difficulty is the smugness that is one of the defining characteristics of Ocean’s team. These guys are awfully stuck on themselves, and though they have reason to be content, it is hard to completely share in their happiness. “Ocean’s Thirteen” will please those who delight in its persistent self-mythologizing, but the thrill of the original is gone, and nothing can bring it back.

“Oceans Thirteen,” MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief sensuality. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In general release.