Lewis Milestone, 1960
Steven Soderbergh, 2001
Two films, four decades apart. The original: the ultimate insider's club,
an unabashed tribute to all things manly and debonair. The remake: A
millennial update with an A-list cast possessing the highest percentage of
talent ever to have appeared on People's Most Beautiful list (instead of the
Rat Pack, call them the Power Pack). Neither the 1960 original, nor the 2001
update seek deep truths. They're big-time buddy movies, looking to evoke the
feel of such classics as The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven.
Both are all about flash and distraction.
The Question Begs
Of all films, why remake this swaggering Rat Pack classic -- a marginal film
at best, overshadowed by the off-screen shenanigans of its principals? Perhaps
acclaimed director Steven Soderberg (Traffic, Erin Brockovich)
felt the need for a break from heavy social commentary and decided, much in
the spirit of the Chairman of the Board himself, to pick up, head to Vegas, and
have a little fun with his friends -- incidentally, perhaps, turning out a
popcorn movie in the process.
Whatever Soderbergh's motivations, comparisons between the two are
inevitable. So on that note, let's break both of them down to the essential
components of a rousing buddy-heist flick:
- Camaraderie: Is there chemistry between the characters?
- Complexity: How believably difficult is the job at hand?
- The Stakes: What's the price for failure? Why should we care?
Got that? Then as Danny Ocean might say, let's do this.
In the Rat Pack version, it comes built in, due to the fact that all eleven
conspirators served together in the 82nd Airborne during World War II. Under
the leadership of Sgt. Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra), they lounge, carouse,
shoot pool and somehow manage to plan and execute a smash-and-grab of five Las
Vegas casinos on New Year's Eve. The interaction comes across as genuine and
affectionate, in no small part due to the characters' shared history -- an
unbreakable bond forged during the greatest conflict of the 20th Century.
Whether swapping old war stories, standing lookout while electrical boxes are
being rewired, or making sure locked doors are marked for later intrusion,
this Eleven works well as a team.
The 2001 reinvention lacks the original's winning charm. The characters
share one common bond: Greed. Ringleaders Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and
Dusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) are all business, speaking in cool, clipped tones, but
it comes across as forced. The characters have no connection to one another
beyond the job at hand -- as opposed to Frank and his crew, who have gone to
hell and back and are itching to recapture some of the thrill they enjoyed on
the front lines.
Edge: Rat Pack
Comparing and contrasting the technical difficulties of the two heists is a
rather apples-and-oranges exercise in futility. The Vegas of the '60s just
wasn't as complicated as its modern-day counterpart. Nonetheless, the Rat
Pack's rudimentary smash-and-grab approach (literally -- smashing through doors
and ordering the window clerks to hand over the contents of their tills) is
embarrassingly easy, even given the relatively primitive security measures of
The 2001 approach involves penetrating the Bellagio's seemingly impregnable
vault, which (as diagrams and computer simulations make clear) is about as
impossible to breach -- and nearly as heavily guarded -- as a nuclear missile
silo. Even taking into account the difference in what was considered difficult
in the 1960s and what's difficult today, the latter-day Ocean and Ryan take
this one in a walk.
Edge: Power Pack
Both films flirt with an interesting subplot, only to leave it dangling or
bring it to an illogical conclusion. In the original, Beatrice Ocean (Angie
Dickinson) tells husband Danny early in the film that she wants a less hectic
lifestyle. The "Big Score" Danny's hatching naturally flies in the face of her
desire to settle down, but it also carries the allure of never having to
hustle again. Unfortunately, beyond that initial meeting (and a later,
unimportant phone conversation between Beatrice and a jealous fling of
Danny's), nothing comes of the couple's troubled relationship. It's simply
ignored, with no payoff or satisfying resolution.
The 2001 take actually does something with Danny Ocean's estranged wife,
Tess (Julia Roberts), who happens to be dating Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia,
capably mastering the film's juiciest role). Benedict, by the way, just
happens to be the head honcho of the Bellagio, so for Danny at least there's
something more at play than cold hard cash. Of course, Danny's rivalry for
Tess' affections has potentially disastrous consequences for the other members
of the team. Unfortunately, this particular subplot ends with an utterly
implausible resolution; Tess' baffling decision to go back to her ex-con
husband (after watching a contrived video of Benedict "choosing" money over
Tess) is completely ludicrous. It should be painfully obvious to the woman
that she is a mere trophy to Benedict and just another score for Ocean. The
clear choice: Choose neither.
As for the higher stakes -- the risk of getting caught while pulling the
job -- neither picture really puts this across. The original plays it cool, even
when the crew comes up snake-eyes and loses the loot (in a wonderfully
appropriate manner). The stakes ultimately don't matter; it's all about
rolling with the punches and looking good to the very end. The final shot of
Frank and his merry men sauntering down the strip is the very
definition of cool.
If the risk isn't convincingly conveyed in the original, the stakes in the
remake are nonexistent. Ocean's band is so far ahead of the game that not even
the audience knows how slick these cons have been until after the heist is
over and everything is explained to the audience. The rules seem made up as
the plot predictably unfurls, with every answer to every possible occurrence
(expected or not) neatly mapped out. It's just too pat. What's more, the
closing shot of Benedict's men tailing Ocean, Dusty and Tess feels
more like a tacked-on ploy to tease a possible sequel than a genuine threat.
Edge: The Rat Pack
And The Winner Is...
When you're taking on the Chairman of the Board (and the board members
include Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.) you'd better be ready to deliver the
goods. The People Magazine contingent waltzes through the film too easily;
they get away clean, never convincing us that these cons are concerned with
anything other than the glare of their own star wattage. The Rat Pack fails to
get away with the con and still comes out looking smooth, proving there's a
definite difference between acting cocky and being cool. Frank and the boys
take it by split decision.
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