Story Highlights• "Ocean's Thirteen" is superficial but enjoyable
• Latest "Ocean" movie has gang trying to game Al Pacino
• Matt Damon has standout performance in fast-moving film
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Look up the word "caper" in the dictionary, you'll find it's a prickly shrub or a frolicsome leap, a romp or gambol -- as well as an informal word for a crime, such as a theft or a heist, usually involving deception.
I don't know about the prickly shrub part, but the rest of the description applies very well to Steven Soderbergh's breezy "Ocean" series. To a fault, occasionally.
Like the first installment -- and unlike the too-clever-by-half-a-dozen "Ocean's Twelve" -- "Thirteen" coasts on star power, wit, glamour and charm, and never once breaks into a sweat. All to the good.
The crew's second reunion is prompted by the collapse of an ailing Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), cheated out of a partnership in a new Vegas hotel by the ruthless casino magnate Willie Bank (Al Pacino).
To square things up and restore their friend's spirits, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and the boys scheme to infiltrate the casino -- known, of course, as "The Bank" -- rig the tables and the slots, and see to it that the high rollers invited to opening night carry off millions in winnings.
At the same time, they mean to ensure the egomaniacal Bank fails to earn another coveted Five Diamond rating for his establishment, and relieve him of some other diamonds -- his prized gems. As revenge stories go, this is elegant, if a little anemic. (In a gesture of divinely decadent Hollywood liberalism, all proceeds go to charity.)
Anyone who found "Twelve" too complicated for its own good will be pleased that having laid it out, this time Soderbergh and his screenwriters stick to the plan and play it relatively straight.
This is the director's ninth feature film in seven years, and while the challenges here are purely technical, he shuffles the deck with the aplomb of someone who knows he's got aces up his sleeve.
Actually, with more than a dozen star players in rotation, a roulette wheel is probably a better analogy. The trick is to keep everyone in motion without letting the thing spin out of control, and this Soderbergh accomplishes through a barrage of short, snappy scenes, deftly filtered through his own pseudonymous cinematography, and propelled by David Holmes' retro musical cues.
Without any romantic involvement for Danny or Rusty (Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones are the only notable drop-outs, but they're missed), dapper duo Clooney and Brad Pitt indulge in their own affectionate double act, pre-empting each other's trailing thoughts, waxing nostalgic before The Sands of time. They're like two old guys enjoying a premature retirement.
Everyone gets his shot: Basher (Don Cheadle) makes the earth move and the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) even ferment revolution in Mexico, perhaps in anticipation of Soderbergh's planned Che project.
But if anyone can stake a claim to this third outing, it's Matt Damon's Linus, by a nose -- the outrageously false one he wears to seduce Banks' personal assistant, an improbably eager Ellen Barkin.
As for Pacino (Barkin's "Sea of Love" partner many moons ago) he's every bit the bronzed, manicured bully. You couldn't fault the performance, but iconically speaking, the star of "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Godfather" belongs in a different cosmos. I'm thinking they should have got Warren Beatty to play Bank -- he was Bugsy Siegel after all -- or even George Segal, come to that. Someone whose reputation doesn't promise the fireworks this suave but utterly superficial entertainment cannot possibly deliver.
Nevertheless, a good time is had by all, making "Ocean's Thirteen" at least one better than "Ocean's Twelve" -- and an entertaining night out at the movies. Have some popcorn.
"Ocean's Thirteen" runs 122 minutes and is rated PG-13. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
George Clooney tries a retro look in "Ocean's Thirteen."