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Soderbergh Mania! – Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Ocean’s Twelve is about as cool and cosmopolitan as they come. While still beholden to the heist concept of Ocean’s Eleven–though this time, the crew has to get together in order to make monetary amends for their previous job–it expands the canvas, stretching it comfortably, without ripping apart the fabric that made the first film work so well. The largely American cast is expanded to include Welsh (Catherine Zeta-Jones), French (Vincent Cassel) and British (Albert Finney) stars. Their world of opportunity has moved away from the Vegas strip, into the dazzlingly beautiful vistas of Lake Como, the streets of Rome, and the canals of Amsterdam. This time, the explanation for the impossible job is even more unbelievable, yet Soderbergh nicely withholds just the right amount of information to keep things grounded in the warped plausibility that seems natural to the Ocean group.

I watch Ocean’s Twelve several times a year, but I don’t keep revisiting it for the story. While the landscapes and the elliptical style keep my attention, the real star is the film’s soundtrack. When I mention the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack, people immediately think of the memorably electronic song that accompanies Francois Toulor’s evasive dance through the security laser field. Where Catherine Zeta-Jones’ storied laser scene from Entrapment (1999) had been about maximizing her sensuality, Cassel’s show-stopping scene is meant to suggest the perfection of his body in relation to the impossibility of the job. The music–Nikkfurie’s “The a La Menthe”–corresponds to the random, manic nature of the lasers. It’s worth noting that “The a La Menthe” does not appear on the soundtrack album to the film: an instance in which a film’s most famous music doesn’t get “official” recognition! Despite the omission, the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack (officially, a CD labelled “Music from the Motion Picture”) remains a bright star indeed. It is part original score, part compilation disc.

The reason for my enthusiasm lies in the seemingly telepathic working relationship between Steven Soderbergh and David Holmes. Holmes, an Irish musician known as a DJ and composer, largely works in an idiom comparable to DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, creating musical soundscapes out of found material and bits of his own wizardry. Holmes and Soderbergh had previously collaborated on Out of Sight (1998) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), finding perfect tonal accompaniment to Soderbergh’s visual sensibility. Ocean’s Eleven contains original Holmes compositions, as well as music from his previous albums that sound as if they were planned with the then-unmade film in mind.

In Ocean’s Twelve, even music that Holmes did not compose sounds as if it could have been made by him. The opening track “L’Appuntamento” (Ornella Vanoni) suggests a kind of languid comfort, transitioning us as it does from the seemingly happy home life of Isabel (Zeta-Jones) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) to the on-the-lam scattering that re-establishes the characters and shows how a vengeful Terry Benedict catches up to them. Its Italian vocals and aggressive string section reads as the kind of library music at which Riz Ortolani and Piero Umiliani excelled. Speaking of Umiliani, his “Crepuscolo Sul Mare,” accompanies the elegiac flashback that establishes how Rusty and Isabel met (she watching from a cafe, he running across a piazza pursued by constables). These tracks are clear indicators of Holmes’ own idiom in Ocean’s Twelve, which is a melange of funk, soundtrack, jazz, and electronica, a kind of sampler platter for music itself.

Holmes’ greatest moment accompanies the main heist sequence, where the scattered Ocean group makes their first public attempt at lifting the Faberge egg, a rare object whose real monetary value is less important than its symbolic capital as the magic solution to their problems (they steal the egg before Toulor, Toulor pays their debts, they don’t die). This attempt, which dishes out roles in a manner similar to the first film, is a spectacular (and calculated) failure. The track “7/29/04 Day Of” makes me wish that I had a better vocabulary for describing music, as its invention astounds me. Like a meeting of Jimmy Smith’s organ, the Tower of Power Horn section, and the rhythm section of The Incredible Bongo Band  (a legendary session group whose take on “Apache” became the basis for all hip-hop), “7/29/04 Day Of” hits all the marks for the scene, providing a manic anthem that underscores (or overscores) the apparent desperation of their gesture.

I could go on like this, but one more example will suffice. After Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew have regained their crown as best thieves in the world–the title that Toulor so desperately sought–the triumphant group re-assembles back in Las Vegas for a celebratory party. As the group enters and the libations flow, the images are enhanced by Dave Grusin’s “Ascension to Virginity,” whose melodic “la la laing” and thematic crescendo ends in fuzzed-out surf guitar. The track itself takes inventory of the musical stylings from earlier in the film, and the title can be read as a kind of paratextual in-joke. The scene celebrates the group’s success. No longer hounded by their debtor, they are as if born-again virgins. That one would aspire to “ascend” to such virginity seems a bit silly. Then again, the Oceans films excel at turning silly situations into admirable entertainment.

Kevin M. Flanagan