The 1960 heist caper "Ocean's Eleven" was not a great film, nor did it try to be. One got the impression that Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack saw the project as little more than a chance to hang out, sing a few songs and throw in some free plugs for five Las Vegas casinos run by their friends in La Cosa Nostra.
As there's no modern equivalent to the Rat Pack, director Steven Soderbergh's remake of the film seems beside the point. A "Brat" Pack version would be more compelling: Imagine a bitter Judd Nelson leading his Breakfast Club alumni in a law-shredding assault on a world that used and then discarded them. But we don't get that here.
Instead, we get a mixed bag of big-name stars, character actors, has-beens and never-weres playing likable baddies who plot to steal $150 million from the vault of the Bellagio casino. (That vault, we're told, also holds the cash for the Mirage and the MGM Grand, which still leaves this remake two casinos shy of its predecessor. Cheap-asses.) The high-profile players include Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as a card shark and a pickpocket, respectively; the old guard is represented by Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould, who dons the gold chains of a casino-kingpin-turned-thief for a chest-baring, baby-sweetie performance that's plain embarrassing. On the almost-famous plateau are Bernie Mac as a blackjack dealer with a shady past and Don Cheadle as a demolition man with the world's worst Cockney accent. (To avoid the tokenistic connotations of Sammy Davis Jr.'s former part, Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin have upped the number of black faces to two. This is progress?)
As before, most of the burglar roles are fleeting and/or two-dimensional. One part that has been slightly fleshed out is that of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), the criminal mastermind who puts the robbery together. Newly paroled after four years in prison for stealing -- get this -- Incan matrimonial head masks, Ocean recruits his 10 hoods to hit the Bellagio on the night of a big prize fight, when the casino's coffers will be at their fullest. Pitt's Rusty Ryan can't decide if Ocean is more enticed by the money or the opportunity to get even with Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who owns the three casinos and has taken up with Ocean's ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts).
There's an interesting character somewhere in this Ocean, but Clooney is in another of those phases in which he elects to forget about acting and go back to playing George Clooney. Be prepared for plenty of soulful stares and the occasional disarming smirk. Roberts, too, is in her stock, babe-with-backbone mode. Their scenes of verbal sparring smack of two well-paid robots running through their emotive greatest hits, each unaffected by anything the other might do or say. At least she never calls him Dr. Ross by mistake.
The first "Ocean's Eleven" was inherently ridiculous: It made jacking five casinos look as easy as knocking over a liquor store. Soderbergh and Griffin wisely submit their holdup as infinitely more complicated and beset by blunders -- some genuine, others feigned to throw Benedict off the trail. This is not to say that the remake is less preposterous; it's just preposterous in different ways. Assigned to keep Tess under surveillance, Damon's Linus Caldwell declares that seeing her walk down a flight of stairs is "the best part of my day" -- an opinion reinforced by a few other salivating males. Positing Julia Roberts as a real head-turner in a town that's full of showgirls raises an important question: Las Vegas of what planet?
No, this is not the Soderbergh of "Traffic;" it's barely the Soderbergh of "Erin Brockovich." His cleverest move is to set an ephemeral 1987-era flashback to the strains of Berlin's lugubrious ballad, "Take My Breath Away." The rest of the time, he's merely professional.
Yet professionalism isn't the worst virtue to apply to a movie like "Ocean's Eleven," which is at its best when it forgets about personalities and focuses on the mechanics of high-tech plunder. I.D. cards are swiped, guards outwitted and technological roadblocks surmounted with a light-fingered abandon that's great fun to witness. Frankly, I can't get enough of that sort of thing, though I still question the wisdom of Santa Soderbergh and his 11 tiny reindeer in betting their Christmas -- and their handful of Oscars -- that you can't, either.