Saturday, September 18, 2010


As an experiment, I recently sat down to watch Ocean's Eleven, and then immediately afterwards watched Ocean's Eleven.

Comparing a movie to its remake is an interesting exercise. It's not like comparing a book or play adaptation, or even an early draft of a screenplay to its finished version. You get to see exactly what the writer based the remake on, and compare the director's choices to his predecessor. This includes overall style, cinematography, casting, hell even the music choices can be compared directly.

I hadn't watched either film in years, and certainly never both in a short period of time (let alone the same evening) and what I found was something unique - something I didn't expect to see at all.

After watching both, I honestly cannot tell you which I think is better.

The original movie is now half a century old and some of it - from the plinky-plonky jazz intro, to the beehive hairdos of the female cast - seems incredibly dated now. But the rest has a timeless quality. You could walk down the street today in the same suits that Sinatra and Dean Martin wear without getting a second glance. These are the guys who defined our modern-day ideas of style, and what's cool.

The dialogue is priceless. Says Ocean's ex-wife of their marriage: "We didn't have a home, Sam, we had a floating crap game." When one of the eleven doesn't want to sign up to the heist, he tells Sinatra "I've got my wife to think of," Sinatra snaps back instantly with "Think of her rich!"

Of course, the movie has someone shout "What's the big idea!?" It seems that every script-writer in Hollywood was required to add that somewhere in the dialogue of every they film made between 1930 and 1960. I'd love to know why.

The dialogue of the remake lacks, in comparison. However, there is one scene, between Danny Ocean and his wife which is packed with great chemistry and sizzling lines.
"You're not wearing your ring."
"I sold it. I don't have a husband, or didn't you get the papers?"
"My last day inside."
"I told you I'd write."

Then, when Terry Benedict shows up:
"You recently were released from prison, is that correct?"

"That's right."

"And how does it feel to be out?"

"About the same."

I compare that to the rest of the movie, where the writer seems to think the height of comedic wit is an old man complaining about things in a Jewish accent ("What? You want I should rob this casino now too?!? Oy vey!") and I begin to wonder if the restaurant scene was written by someone else.

And now we come to the plot.

In the original, the eleven men actually rob five casinos. Not one vault underneath three casinos. Five separate casinos. At the stroke of midnight - No wait, I'll come back to that. It's so good I want to save it for last.

The original falls down a bit story-wise. The characters are somewhat hokey; an ex-con with a bum ticker (Epic dialogue time: "Give it to me straight, Doc. Is it the big casino?") trying to do one last job, so his kid will be well taken care of when he dies; a spoilt rich-kid trying to get the money to liberate himself from his overbearing mother; The rest (aside from Frank, Dean and Sammy) are a faceless bunch of "also-rans" who don't seem to do much aside from fill in the numbers. The movie ends with ten of the eleven back exactly where they started, and Frank's marital problems aren't addressed again once his wife walks of of shot about twenty minutes into the film.

The story mis-steps in the remake are different in nature, but somehow less forgivable. After all, Hollywood had forty years to learn more about making movies.

For example, as is said time and time again, Benedict knows everything that happens in his Casinos. Yet Linus, Matt Damon's character, can follow him everywhere he goes for two weeks without being spotted. I don't care how good the kid is, that just seems weird. And you think that with eleven people in on the gig, they may have considered changing the guy assigned to follow Benedict once in a while, just in case. After all, a large part of their plan later on rests on Linus walking up to Benedict and introducing himself and Benedict not recognising him.

They check Saul into the hotel disguised as an Eastern European businessman. He persuades Benedict to let him store his briefcase in the vault they wish to rob. Why? Because the briefcase contains the explosives they need to open the vault door. But they're small and light, and the gang are already smuggling in a small chinese fellow who's going to plant them. Can't they just give the explosives to him? There's not much room in the trolley-thing he travels in, but there's more than enough for explosives.

Oh, and Brad Pitt's character, Rusty, is a career criminal and con-man. His very livelihood depends on him being able to pass himself off as other people. Maybe it's just me, but I think having a big-ass tattoo on the back of your left hand would hamper your chameleonic abilities somewhat.

Finally, we see the brilliant plan they've been setting up all along. They contact Benedict, and set up an elaborate ransom demand. They pretend to split the money in two, and Benedict's men carry half of it out to a van, which the gang drive to a nearby airport by remote control. But this is all a diversion. In actual fact, they have left all the money in the vault, and are waiting on Benedict to call the Las Vegas S.W.A.T. team to storm the vault. They intercept his 911 call and send their own men in, disguised as the S.W.A.T. team who then fake a siege and a gunfight, shrug their shoulders, say "Dunno how they got out, but the money's not here lol" and walk out of the casino with all of the money in their kit bags. This plan is long, it's elaborate, and it has (at least) three problems.
  1. The whole plan relies on them being able to manipulate the video feed from the vault to the security center. Livingstone, the tech guy, does this by getting into the casino and planting electronic taps on all the CCTV feeds in their central server room. This room is the nerve-centre for all of the casino's security and he's able to pull panels off the machines and hack away unseen, because they don't have any CCTV in the room that controls the CCTV.
  2. When Benedict calls the LVPD, the gang intercepts the phone call, and send in their own guys. This is done through the same miracle hacking, but this time it's of the phone line. But what if Benedict had used his cellphone? What if he had called a friend or contact at the Las Vegas police force directly, and not 911? They'd have been proper fucked, that's what.
  3. The money that the gang sends out first, the money that Benedict's men carry out of the vault, isn't money. It's fliers for hookers. But we see the gang get into the vault. Linus and Ocean abseil in, and Yen sneaks in inside that trolley-thing. There's no possible way that the gang could have got those fliers into the vault in order for Benedict's people to get them out again. None at all. Soderbergh, you have two things in bags to track: The money and the fliers. How do you lose sight of the fact that one of those two things magically spawns from nowhere? Or maybe they were all in Saul's briefcase.
But the whole thing is stylish, it's fun, and totally enjoyable if you don't really think about it too much.

Now I should explain how they did it in the original. This is the sort of genius idea you just don't see any more. As I said before, in the original movie, they're planning to rob five different casinos at once (The Sands, The Riviera, The Sahara, The Desert Inn, and The Flamingo, since you ask) at midnight on New Years Eve. Their plan is simple. Blow up an electricity pylon outside of town when everyone is singing "Auld Lang Syne" and once the lights go out, to calmly walk (in pairs) into the counting rooms and cages of each casino. To shine torches in the faces of the people there, tell them they have guns, and demand all of the money. Then find their way out by following the trail from the infra-red paint they sprayed on the soles of their boots that only they can see, because of their special glasses. The paint thing may have been sci-fi for 1960, but it sure beats the "Pinch" from the remake. (And they don't endanger countless innocent lives by setting off an EMP in a highly populated urban enviroment)

But this plan has two problems. One: About twenty seconds after the power goes out, the casinos' emergency generators will kick in, and the lights will all come back on. Twenty seconds is not enough time to rob a casino. Two: The doors to the count rooms and cages have electronic locks. Even if the power was on, someone inside the cage needs to press a button to open the doors.

Now comes the clever bit. One of the eleven is an electrician. Before midnight, he gets into each casino's main switch room, and crosses the wires from the emergency lights with the wires that control the cage doors. Twenty seconds after the power goes out, the emergency generators kick in, and instead of the lights coming back on, the doors to all of the cages pop open. It's wonderful. It's a simple elegance I've not seen in any heist movie made since.

All-in-all, the two movies are so different, I find it hard to believe the writing credits on the remake go to the guys who wrote the 1960 screenplay. The original is formulaic with hints of genius. The remake is unconventional, but not half as clever as it thinks it is. The original is cool and slick - But that's not hard, as many of our notions of what exactly "cool and slick" means were given to us by the rat pack in the 1960's. The cast could all have been smoking corn-cob pipes, and today we'd think corn-cob pipes were stylish and timeless. The remake tries very hard to be cool, and does quite well, considering how hard it's trying. It does have its own goofy charm.

It's interesting that the flaws from each are absent from the other. It would be interesting to take what worked with the original, and combine it with what works from the sequel. You could have a really good movie. It'd certainly be better than Ocean's Twelve.

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