They’re ”analog players in a digital world.” That’s how one cynical wag sums up Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his team of misfit logistical wizards in Ocean’s Thirteen, Steven Soderbergh’s delectably elaborate and savory soufflé of a mother-of-all-scams sequel. Danny and his boys are being told that they’re out of touch, not up to matching wits with a 21st-century casino wired with technology smarter than they are. Of course, the put-down is really a compliment. What makes Danny and his gang so winning, apart from their hip button-lipped swagger, is their oldfangled ingenuity — their eagerness to spring any trick, from weighted roulette balls to a fake earthquake.
In Ocean’s Thirteen, the cons and gambits come at you thick and fast, and Clooney and his compatriots guide them all with such insular verbal code (quick, what’s a Billy Martin?) that the movie is beyond sly — it’s a blizzard of blissed-out chicanery. There are enough interlocking ruses to fill a dozen heist thrillers, and a few leftover James Bond films besides. Here, however, as in Ocean’s Eleven (though not in the overly-pleased-with-itself Ocean’s Twelve), the polarities of complication and ease of execution are neatly reversed: The more impossible the trick, the more that Danny and his boys bring it off with a casual, no-sweat, who cares? insouciance. It’s grace under pressure turned into unfettered masculine style.
In the witty script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), the heist, more than ever, is just a MacGuffin, with Danny and his team out to take revenge on Willy Bank (Al Pacino, just about glowing with depraved capitalist good cheer), a casino magnate who has strong-armed the benevolent Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of co-ownership of his new Las Vegas gaming palace. The casino itself is a gaudy tower of sin: a three-stranded ribbon of candied metal twirling up into the sky. As Willy prepares for opening night, Danny readies his plan, which is to squash Willy’s chance for a coveted Five Diamond rating, and also to slice off his profits, in which case the co-ownership reverts back to Reuben. To do that, Danny must ensure that the house keeps losing.
There’s a scam in every corner. How do you fake a lie-detector test to get the shrimpy electronics ace Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) certified as a shuffle-machine technician? Why, you put a tack in his shoe, so he can step on it when he’s giving a true answer, thus spiking the bodily-discomfort waves to match his false replies. How do you sneak weighted dice into a casino that’s guarded like Dick Cheney’s bunker? Easy: You send Virgil and Turk Malloy (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) down to a dice factory in Mexico, so they can slip magnetic powder into the hot liquid dice mix. And what about that bogus earthquake? Nothing to it: Have Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) operate a tunnel drill that will rock the casino to its foundations, even if buying that drill requires $36 million — and, therefore, the partnership of an old nemesis. I haven’t even mentioned the Vegas-from-hell holiday orchestrated to torment a professional hotel-casino critic (David Paymer); Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) disguising himself as a hippie seismologist to plant a hidden camera; or Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) seducing Pacino’s right-hand woman, Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin), by wearing aphrodisiac cologne — and, for no good reason, a false nose that gives him the exact profile of…Steven Soderbergh. (Okay, they’re allowed one decadent inside joke.)
In the Ocean’s films, the sheer complexity of the engineering is a delight, and also an ornate riff on what ‘the workplace” has become. Ocean’s Eleven winked at the armor of male camaraderie, with the heist used as a deadpan illustration of how men, out of the fear that they might end up looking a little too, you know, friendly, now bond exclusively through mutual tasks. Ocean’s Twelve just winked at itself, but Ocean’s Thirteen returns to the first film’s frictionless comedy of attitude. The movie is a witty celebration of process, using Danny’s casino scam to make a comment on the world he’s out to defeat — the world of technology, of systems, that now rules us all. To undermine the casino and, in particular, its sci-fi surveillance computer (which can read the pupil dilations of every gambler), Danny and his team must use their analog skill to beat the digital world at its own game. They may be ‘doing it for Reuben,” but the movie employs a handful of throwaway gags (Danny tearing up at Oprah, Virgil and Turk fomenting a Mexican workers’ strike) to ask: In a world ruled by process, is compassion still real? Or is it just another scam? In Ocean’s Thirteen, it is deviously, and merrily, both. A-