Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Proper Look At Ocean's 13... On Paper

There's so many scripts I mean to review fully but never get the time to... The Only Living Boy in New York, Brick, Valkyrie...

Thankfully, Simon Reynolds has been doing a great, great job with script reviews for film ick. He's really cut out for the job and, honestly, if you haven't been reading his pieces, you've been missing out.

But I've been wanting to review Brian Koppelman and David Levien's Ocean's 13 script myself for some time, and for the last couple of months at least I've never been more than one last push away from actually sitting down and typing this review.

Part of the problem was political, really. I was first shown a copy of the script by somebody who really didn't want me to excerpt it, or even review it. So I didn't. Then I saw another copy of the same draft and the owner of that one wasn't at all worried about me writing it up. That was the green flag I needed.

But then I couldn't get ahold of that second copy again and... well, you don't care about this. This is just a string of excuses, for all you care. Let's cut to the chase.

So - Ocean's 13, premiering tonight at Cannes. Will it be any good?

If this script is anything to go by then yes, it certainly will.

There's that old maxim about films being written three times - on paper, in the shoot and in the editing room. Looking at the trailers, preview scenes and featurettes that have popped up online, the differences between the paper draft and the filmed version of Ocean's 13 are quite numerous.

Not really in terms of plot points, mind - the story seems to be, by and large, the same one. But the dialogue has changed a fair bit. New bits of business have been invented left right and centre. Shine has been put on the apple.

What began as a light, quick, fun read has evolved into a light, quick, fun, sparkling film. Or so it would seem.

So, what is the story? (Obviously, a great many spoilers are to follow)

In a nutshell, Ruben Tiskhoff (Elliot Gould) has been hospitalised by the wily Willy Banks (played by Al Pacino). Banks didn't strike him, or have his heavies strike him - he just stressed Ruben out to the point of collapse. He managed this by crookedly cutting Ruben out of a partnership to build a new Vegas casino - thereby betraying the code of honour amongst those who have 'shaken Sinatra's hand' - and has left Ruben facing bankruptcy and, more to the point, in a coma.

So, as you can tell from the ads, we have Danny and the gang cooking up a revenge scheme. They recruit their some time nemesis Terry Benedict - the 13th gangster of the title, in case you didn't yet know - and set about hitting Banks where it hurts. The plan is a fun one: on the opening night of this new casino, they're going to rig the odds, just for a few minutes, so that everything goes the way of the gamblers, so that the house loses - and loses big.

This is the quintessential payback to all those Vegas villains: sure, the house always wins - but not this time. For just a few moments, it's going to haemorhage cash. Good stuff.

Of course, there's a lot of different gambling games to be found in any one casino, and the gang are going to have to work hard in order to tip the odds on all of them - but thankfully, this is a film, and the kind of film where unexplained, possibly unexplainable, little gadgets exist. And it is also the kind of film where a group of movie star con artists can pull off even the most ludicrous disguises. And it is definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, a film where the good guys win.

My favourite plot conceit is that of the Very Unimportant Person. He's never given a name, and we don't learn too much about him, but he's key to the whole trick coming off. The VUP is played by David Paymer. From the moment he arrives on page 33, he becomes a pawn in the plot. It all begins as he's checking into The Bank, Willy's superhotel. A little bit of maneuvering from a line-jumping Saul and the undercover Rusty, who takes the place of the concierge, and the wheels are set in motion...

As for this VUP, he never finds out what role he is playing, or even that anything so exciting is going on around him. But - this being that kind of film, as I was saying - he is handsomely rewarded in the pay off.

The VUP business is a great deal of fun on the page, and even though it's been kept almost entirely out of the marketing materials, I'd expect it to be something people really like about the film, something they'll talk about leaving the cinema, or at their work watercooler the next day. I expect this VUP will garner a lot of positive word of mouth for this film.

Another key part of the plan revolves around Basher (Don Cheadle). He's in charge of creating a fake act of god that will create a huge distraction. It's like a magician's sleight of hand, but instead of him just gesturing wildly over here while he pulls a rubber dove out of his sleeve over here, this trickster runs the risk of creating a huge nuclear explosion over here while a whole lot of important tidying up is going on over here. Basher's interventions are crucial to the scam coming off smoothly, sure, but not, as you might have assumed, to making the scams work in the first place.

There are so many little shiny moments in this script that I'm convined we have a real crowd pleaser here (and tonight at Cannes, I guess we'll know for sure). I do wonder how much the scripted fun and games were filmed however. For example, the script contains a comeback-cameo for Rusty's poker students from 11 - you know: Topher Grace, Holly Marie Combs, those other less instantly memorable folk. It's one thing writing the scene, another getting them all in. But I expect they came along gladly. Would you turn it down?

And does Tess (Julia Roberts) appear? At all? Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it. But... well, perhaps this was the only unsatisfying element of the whole script for me. I won't reveal what, exactly - besides, there's every chance the finished film hasn't turned out this way. But from the pages at least, there was something I really wanted, and I didn't get it.

I liked Ocean's 12 - I know that's not a popular opinion, but I did. It was smart, and well made and it loved movies as much as we do. Ocean's 13, however, I think I'll love. The Terry Benedict team up is very well handled (obviously, a rat is always going to be a rat, but Danny is smart enough to know this); everybody gets some good stuff to do, some great nonsense to have fun with, and that's just on paper, before they started improvising; there are plenty of call-backs to the previous films, particularly 11; and Danny and Rusty are still clearly, hopelessly head over heels in their platonic man-love with one another.

When Stephen Soderbergh promised that this was the Ocean's 11 sequel everybody wanted last time around, it looks like he was completely correct. Don't be cautious about this one - you can bet safely knowing that, in fact, while the odds are typically stacked against you with star-studded multiplex fare, just for the running time of this film, the outcome is rigged and you're guaranteed to walk away a winner.

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