The cast of Ocean's Eleven clearly had a blast making that film, but their enthusiasm didn't always translate to fun onscreen. The story was obvious and overlong, and director Steven Soderbergh appeared to be going through the motions. Here, the opposite is true. Ocean's Twelve is very much a Soderbergh film, with his trademark jump cuts and color schemes and various other amusing narrative devices.
The cast here seems to be kicking back, but that isn't really the case -- practically everything that appears to be as natural as improvisation turns out to be planted for a payoff later. The real heist isn't contained within the story but rather is the film itself. You go in expecting all the trappings of the genre, then gradually realize that Soderbergh's real interest is in smartly parodying and subverting the form. At least one subplot in the second half is as postmodern or meta as anything in the director's Hollywood deconstruction, Full Frontal.
The entire team from the last flick is back. Brad Pitt's Rusty causes trouble by falling into bed with Catherine Zeta-Jones, then escaping out the window when he learns that she's actually a Europol agent trying to track him down. Old foe Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who has managed to find everybody's individual hideout, wants his money paid back with interest. Meanwhile, there's another master thief out there called the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), whose ego demands that he match wits with Danny Ocean (George Clooney) to determine which of them is truly the best.
In related developments, Linus (Matt Damon) wants more respect, the Malloy brothers (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck) still bicker incessantly, Frank (Bernie Mac) has a thing about his nails, Saul (Carl Reiner) wants out, Topher Grace once again cameos ("I totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie"), Eddie Izzard looks and sounds almost exactly like Tim Curry, and Don Cheadle's cockney accent still sucks beyond belief.
With so many main characters, some will inevitably get the shaft, and Clooney is, surprisingly, not much of a factor this time around. Roberts, Damon, Zeta-Jones and Pitt are front and center, though the villainous Cassel gets at least one showcase moment, for which he must have trained long and hard. Pitt at one point quotes the Coen brothers' gangster movie Miller's Crossing, proving that this film has the right kind of influences.
Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the screenplay was never intended to be an Ocean's Eleven sequel at all. Soderbergh liked the tone of Timeline screenwriter George Nolfi's script Honor Among Thieves, the source of the Ocean-Night Fox rivalry. From there, the material was adapted to fit all 11 original characters, plus the new villain, plus the new love interest (Zeta-Jones). You'd never know it just by looking.
A sequel to a remake doesn't sound like a breeding ground for creativity, but Ocean's Twelve is the exception that proves the rule. Unconfined to the dictates of the remake and unbound by the demand to be cooler than the Rat Pack (ain't gonna happen -- which they presumably figured out last time). Soderbergh seems to have found his vision again. It'll be a great day when he returns to writing his own material, but until then, this is none too shabby.