Reinventing The Genre | Ocean’s Eleven at Twenty

I love heist movies, for much the same reason that I love classic detective stories: the excitement of seeing a trick slowly dissected and laid out in front of you. A proper heist movie is about deception. Yes, there’s the core element of “a crew of people plan and execute a theft together”, but the soul of the film is in the various moving parts slowly meshing together. You don’t get to see the whole picture until everything is in place and suddenly it’s there: a perfectly executed plan that was taking place in front of your eyes the whole time. It’s a classic formula, and one that was utterly revitalised for a new generation in 2001 when it was executed perfectly itself by Steven Soderbergh with Ocean’s Eleven.

George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean's Eleven -
George Clooney as Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt as Rusty Ryan.

Ocean’s Eleven is technically a remake, though it strays heavily from its source material. The original was filmed in 1960 and took place in the aftermath of World War 2. Military veterans Danny Ocean (played by Frank Sinatra) and Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) recruit nine of their former comrades to infiltrate and then rob five different Las Vegas casinos in one heist. Only the first half of the film is about the robbery; the second half is about the gang’s attempts to evade investigator Duke Santos (Cesar Romero). The film was largely a vehicle for the “Rat Pack” (Sinatra’s circle of Hollywood friends) to act together. This creates a chummy atmosphere that helps to make the gang believable as friends, but the film is generally underwhelming and coasts on the star power of its cast.

Forty years later, the idea of remaking the film as a star-studded ensemble piece was in several people’s minds. Jerry Weintraub, the film’s producer, had been thinking about the idea for years. Weintraub loved Las Vegas, and his connections with the city were key to the film getting the unprecedented access to real casinos and hotels that gives it its unique flavour. The other key to making the film was Weintraub and Soderbergh’s connections with Hollywood. George Clooney (who plays Danny Ocean) was the first they recruited, and he decided to take a gamble on what the film could do for his career by taking a much lower salary than he normally would. Julia Roberts (who had won Best Actress for Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich the year before) and Brad Pitt (who Soderbergh knew through the director David Fincher) also agreed to take less than their going rate for the film. With those three powerhouses, Soderbergh and Weintraub were now able to pull in the talent they wanted.

A group shot from Ocean's Eleven -
The rest of the crew. From left to right: Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Shaobo Qin, Don Cheadle.

One of the most fun early parts of the movie is the recruitment montage. Just like Soderbergh and Weintraub, Danny and Rusty put their crew together with care. Frank Catton, played by Bernie Mac, is their first recruit (in fact, technically he joins the heist before Rusty does.) Bernie Mac was a Chicago-born standup who carved out careers in both television and cinema. Health problems caused by sarcoidosis hit him in the early 2000s, and he died aged only 50 years old in 2008. Their next recruit is Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff, an old-school Las Vegas casino mogul who finances the heist. With his backing they recruit the rest of the gang. Most notable is Matt Damon as Linus Caldwell, who becomes almost a tertiary protagonist (after Clooney and Pitt). Mark Wahlberg was originally cast in the role, but Damon so thoroughly inhabits the role of the rookie member of the gang that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.


The target of the heist is Terry Benedict, played by Andy Garcia. Garcia is of course well known for his roles in films like The Godfather Part 3 and Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, a mental association that perfectly matches the tone of quiet menace that he brings to Benedict. He glides through his casino like a shark, an uncontested master of his domain. Accompanying him is his girlfriend (and Danny’s ex-wife) Tess, played by Julia Roberts. She expertly balances her role such that you always sympathise with her despite her having left the hero for the villain. When Danny asks her if Benedict makes her happy, her delivery of the line “He doesn’t make me sad” tells volumes.

Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven -
Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) and Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts), with Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the background.

The movie is deliberately retro in tone, not just in its look and its feel but in its plot. Soderbergh lowers the stakes – nobody is killed or even seriously injured throughout – which combines with the lush opulence of the set and the charm of the characters to evoke a “Golden Age of Hollywood” feel for the film. It’s a curiously relaxing affair, and the whole film has a comforting tone. The low stakes didn’t lower the audience excitement for the film. It was hardly cheap (an $85 million dollar budget, including huge amounts on wardrobe and set design) but it made more than five times that amount at the box office. It remains both Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s most successful film to date, and for many people it is the quintessential heist movie.

Naturally this success led to sequels. Ocean’s Twelve was generally considered a disappointment (partially due to raising the stakes and ditching the Las Vegas setting) but still pulled in more than three times its budget at the box office. Ocean’s Thirteen returned to Vegas with a similar plot to the first movie, and while it also didn’t reach Eleven’s dizzying heights it did extremely well. One of the key parts of the success of the series was Soderbergh and Weintraub deliberately setting up a genuine friendship among the eleven stars in the first film, and Weintraub described it as “the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie”. In 2018 a fourth film (not directed by Soderbergh) was released with a new (and all-female) gang called Ocean’s 8. It starred Sandra Bullock as Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie, and enjoyed similar critical and financial success to the other sequels. Rumours of more entries in the series have swirled since, with Soderbergh hoping to get the survivors of the original cast back together and Ocean’s 8 actors expressing hopes to return. Only time will tell whether it’ll happen.

George Clooney in Ocean's Eleven
George Clooney as Danny Ocean. Trust him, he knows what he’s doing.

But for fans of the first film, the Ocean effect has meant a bumper crop of classic-style heist movies. The flagging genre was revitalised by the films success, and heist movies came thick and fast. Movies like Tower Heist and the Bollywood blockbuster New Year’s Eve took direct inspiration, while films like Now You See Me and Baby Driver added their own twists. Even heist elements have crept into other genres, with several entries in The Fast & The Furious series being heist films. (Fast Five even features a “putting the gang” together montage that’s very similar to Ocean’s Eleven.) Marvel dipped their toe into heists with Ant-Man, and Soderbergh even returned to the genre with Lucky Logan. With more heist movies being released every year, it seems like the influence of Ocean’s Eleven is going to be felt for decades to come.

All images via IMDB.