Since bursting on the scene in 1989 with the seminal indie 'Sex, Lies and Videotape,' Steven Soderbergh has built a career delivering naturalistic dramas that reject Hollywood convention and replace it with raw glimpses into humanity. With an eclectic filmmography that includes such high-profile and critically-acclaimed hits as 'Erin Brokovich' and 'Traffic,' Soderbergh's film choices are tend to be anything but predictable. That is, except when it comes to his 2001 heist remake 'Oceans 11,' which has spawned an unlikely franchise for the iconoclastic director.
In this third film in the series, master thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) reunites his team in order to take down a vicious casino owner named Willy Banks (Al Pacino). It seems Banks nearly killed a dear friend and financier (Elliot Gould) of our loveable criminals, leaving the crew looking for revenge. But rather than physically harm Banks, the group decides to hit him where it really hurts -- the potential cash flow of his new multi-million dollar casino. What follows is a complicated heist the relies on clever trickery and fascinating sleight of hand. Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones never appear on screen this time around -- instead, the action centers around a reduced ensemble that features the likes of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Bernie Mac, and Eddie Izzard.
The result is a fun jaunt through a world where our heroes are always one step ahead of the bad guys. The cast comfortably sinks back into their roles and effortlessly inhabit their characters. Egg-shelled barbs and light-footed dialogue brings the ensemble to life and provide plenty of laughs throughout the film. Pacino's villain ignites the story, with the actor given free reign to dominate the screen and play up every line. Where Garcia's casino boss was a dry and calculating thinker, Pacino's Willy Banks is a cold-blooded Vegas old-schooler, played to great effect. Clooney and Pitt's characters, meanwhile, continue to exude cool in every scene they're in, and remain as magnetic as they are engaging.
I have to admit that I'm an absolute sucker for this series -- I was one of the few people who even had a decent time watching the critically drubbed 'Ocean's 12.' Even so, I can see that 'Ocean's 13' is a definite improvement over the second film, managing to effectively return the focus to the place where this series belongs -- Vegas. This time around, the heist is more satisfying, the plot points have more weight, and the actors are less self-referential. There are even moments of heart and genuine pathos that manage to elevate the significance of 'Ocean's 13,' making it more than just a piece of pulpy entertainment.
That's not to say that this sequel is as good as it could be. Whereas 'Ocean's 11' balanced the mechanics of its heist with a series of carefully plotted character dynamics, 'Oceans 13' makes the heist the main focus of the story, giving the entire film the feel of an extended third act that's consumed by the details of the robbery rather than the development of the film's characters. Simply put, everyone is the same as they were in previous movies -- there are references to substantial life changes for Clooney, Pitt, and Damon's characters, but their behaviors and personalities seem unaffected. As a result, the end product lacks some of the wonder and pure exhilaration of the first film.
That being said, 'Ocean's 13' is still a blast and captures the breezy tone of the best heist flicks out there. It's clear that the cast is having a great time and Soderbergh seems to have taken many of the criticisms of 'Ocean's 12' to heart. Fans will find plenty to love and will take an immediate liking to the ensemble performances. Newcomers to the series should check out 'Ocean's 11' first.
'Ocean's 13' hits both HD DVD and Blu-ray with identical encodes. Unfortunately, while I'm quite sure the look of this 1080p/VC-1 transfer reflects Soderbergh's directorial intentions, a series of glaring color discrepancies, heavy noise, and rough detail conspire to make this something less than a high-def demo disc.
Soderbergh's camera makes Las Vegas an overwhelming mish mash of neon lights and artificial personalities that the transfer matches with subtle visual cues. For the majority of the film, skintones are boosted, oversaturated, and flooded with deep orange tones (even more than I remember seeing in theaters). Likewise, spiking grain and low lighting can make detail a moot point at times. And although sharpness and clarity receive an impressive upgrade compared to the standard-def DVD, they only make the grain sharper than the rest of the imagery -- the resulting salt and pepper fiasco is so elevated at times that the picture seems almost entirely flat and two-dimensional.
In spite of the strange choices made by its director, 'Ocean's 13' does have technical merit. Crowds and pinpoints of light are crisply rendered in long shots of the casino. Black levels are deep, and contrast suits the film nicely. Some shots are even downright gorgeous -- when Soderbergh reduces his fixation on orange, the picture comes alive and looks wonderful while still retaining the director's naturalistic rejection of Hollywood shooting styles. In these moments, blues and greens pop and really deliver an impressive image. I also found myself engaged by the textural detail of the sets and costumes -- fabrics, wood grains, and the etchings on tables often look great.
Fans will likely debate at length as to whether the transfer of 'Ocean's 13' is an ugly mess or an artistic declaration of substance. It certainly seems reflective of Soderbergh's established cinematic asthetic, and I have no doubt that this is how the director wants us to see his film. Just be warned -- 'Ocean's 13' is not the sort of disc you'll want to pull out to sell your friends and neighbors on the benefits of high definition.
This HD DVD edition of 'Ocean's 13' features an Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround mix (640 kbps) that's identical to the DD track on the Blu-ray (also 640 kbps).
Although film itself is populated by hushed conversations, dialogue is always crisp and well-prioritized within the soundscape, and I never found myself straining to hear lines. Likewise, the soundtrack is light and jazzy, flittering across the front channels with ease -- I wouldn't say there are any standout moments per se, but decent dynamics keep the score at the forefront of the mix.
The most disappointing aspect of the audio package is that the surrounds are rarely engaged and the LFE channel is fairly muted throughout the film. Pans are too subtle, directionality is nill, and ambiance is insignificant. This is by no means a reflection of the technical quality of the audio track itself, but rather a weakness in the sound design. I was initially disappointed to see a standard Dolby mix on this release, but a high-end track would've likely sounded exactly the same in this instance. In the end, the track handles everything Soderbergh throws its way with ease, but not unlike the video, it simply doesn't pack the wow factor of better high-def releases on either format.
Warner has ported over the complete set of supplements from the concurrently-released standard-def DVD, but unfortunately this is a rather anemic collection. (The good news for high-def fans is that we get a whole other set of high-def exclusives, which I'll discuss in the next section.)
Although it fails to reach the same heights as 'Ocean's 11,' Soderbergh's third film in the series is definitely better than the second, and I personally had a lot of fun watching the actors play verbal chess. This HD DVD is a tough one to call. Given the aesthetics of the source material, it's hard to imagine the video or audio looking or sounding much better than they do here, but neither come close to the best high-def discs out there. A slim supplements package doesn't help matters (although at least we get an HD exclusive director's commentary). All things considered, fans of the film who know what to expect will likely still enjoy this presentation, but newcomers may end up wondering why the experience doesn't pack more punch.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.