Six Damn Fine Degrees #118: When you’re tired of robbing casinos…

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Pretty much from its infancy, cinema recognised the dramatic potential of crime. Whether we’re talking about whodunnits in the style of their literary ancestors, films in which the protagonists were sleuths and detectives, or their counterparts, the movies that told the stories of gangsters, thieves and murderers, crime pays – at the very least in ticket sales. Something else cinema exceeds at: showing us people who are very, very good at what they do. There’s a joy to watching consummate professionals at work. (There’s even a phrase for it, competence porn, and Breaking Bad‘s Mike Ehrmantraut is its laconic patron saint.) And, of course, there’s the place where the Venn diagram meets: many a highly entertaining film has been about criminals who are good at their particular genre of crime. The con men and women, the safe breakers and thieves, and yes, even the killers who are just so damn adept at killing that it’s delightful to watch them go about their gruesome business.

And at the heart of the intersection of those two sets is a particular brand of movie, about a particular brand of criminals who do a very specific kind of crime requiring the upmost professionalism: the heist movie.

One man who’s practically made a career out of directing films about people who are good at the work they do is Steven Soderbergh, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s made not just one heist film but multiple. The one that is the genre at its purest, arguably the Platonic ideal of the heist movie, is Soderbergh’s 2001 remake (albeit a loose one) of a ’60s Rat Pack vehicle: Ocean’s Eleven. If you wanted to train a machine-learning algorithm – HeistGPT, if you will – on a single movie, you could do worse than to have that AI watch Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven over and over and over.

At the same time, though, there are several schools of heist movies, and Ocean’s Eleven is far removed from something such as Michael Mann’s iconic Thief, or even another heist film of Mann’s, Heat. Where Mann is interested in showing us a heist that is methodical, well-researched, and fundamentally realistic, Soderbergh’s film is much more about the vibe of the heist. You could almost do a heist following Mann’s films like a manual, though that would likely lead to heartbreak, betrayal and death at the hand of Al Pacino, though not before some quality sublimated bromance scenes. Soderbergh’s heist is light of touch, it’s sleight-of-hand magic set to a jazzy beat. In Ocean’s Eleven, he gives us the feel of a heist, but he’s playing a trick on us even while his band of heisters led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) are playing a trick on Andy García’s casino tycoon Terry Benedict.

Ocean’s Eleven was well received by critics and audiences – and it led to Soderbergh directing his first sequel. But Ocean’s Twelve wasn’t what most people expect from a sequel: it’s a self-aware deconstruction of the first film and its genre, it’s both a riff and a comment on the tropes of heist movies, with more than a dash of the French nouvelle vague – and it succeeded in alienating a considerable part of its audience with its in-your-face, self-referential postmodernism. I don’t think I’ve seen many sequels that have generated as much resentment and anger as Ocean’s Twelve, and that includes even The Rise of Skywalker. So Soderbergh, who was nonetheless asked to return for yet another sequel, gave us Ocean’s Thirteen, a film that mollified some of the people who threw things at the screen when they saw Ocean’s Twelve – and, in my opinion, it’s one of Soderbergh’s least interesting films by far. It was what heist movies are at their worst – a tired retread of familiar tropes – that wasn’t even saved by the considerable charms of the cast. I’ll have to rewatch the film at some point to see whether it warranted my disdain, but at the time Ocean’s Thirteen felt like an overt admission that the series had run its course.

But while Soderbergh may have been tired of Danny Ocean & Co, he wasn’t tired of the heist genre, and with Logan Lucky he showed audiences that he still knew how to have fun with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells with a very particular set of skills – but where the criminals of the Ocean’s series never looked like there was any financial need motivating their casino shenanigans (after all, the heist to end all heists in Ocean’s Eleven was motivated not by money but by Danny Ocean wanting to win back his ex), Logan Lucky‘s thieves were far from the heist nobility of the earlier movies. The film is about a bunch of blue-collar workers planning a heist during a North Carolina NASCAR race – which is about as far as one can get from the billion-dollar businesses glitzy, gaudy Las Vegas. And the change in scenery is reflected in the freshness of the film. Where Soderbergh had fun with a maximalist approach to the genre tropes in Ocean’s Eleven and with subverting them in Ocean’s Twelve (albeit at the displeasure of some of the movie’s audiences), and where his filmmaking came across as repetitive and rote with Ocean’s Thirteen, he found his directorial mojo again with Logan Lucky… and it’s probably good that the film’s success nonetheless haven’t led to a sequel. In 2018, there was an all-female spin-off of the Ocean’s movies, Ocean’s 8, with a similarly star-studded cast, but Soderbergh only served as one of the producers; there is also talk of a prequel set in ’60s Europe, and even of a possible Ocean’s Fourteen.

I can see why Soderbergh is attracted to the genre: the director enjoys making films about people who are good at what they do, and he loves being playful with genre, taking conventions and expectations and turning them on their head in fun ways. It is conceivable that he could do so in another Ocean’s sequel – but, honestly, if Logan Lucky is anything to go by, while Soderbergh is free to keep playing in that particular genre sandbox, it’s better for everyone if he finds new toys to do so. Unless he were to find a fun way of doing a heist film that is also a swan song for the heist film, the ultimate meta deconstruction that’s sure to tick off even more people than Ocean’s Twelve. A Watchmen of heist films (who heists the heisters?), perhaps, or Casino in the Woods. Or is the solution perhaps more obvious than that in this day and age? A crossover extravaganza to fit in with recent eat-the-rich trends in Hollywood? Ocean vs Logan – breaking into a cinema near you very soon!

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