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SYFY WIRE Brad Pitt

Why Ocean's Eleven Remains a Perfect Heist Movie

Let's take a look back at the caper classic, now streaming on Peacock.

By Matthew Jackson
Danny (George Clooney) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) wear sunglasses and suits while sitting in front of food and drink in Oceans Eleven (2001).

We like movies about people who are good at their jobs.

It's a very simple idea, but when done well, it can fill you with a sense of satisfaction as the credits roll, knowing that you've just watched characters navigate adversity and turmoil through the force of their skill and determination. It's one of the things that makes Top Gun so satisfying, or The Hunt for Red October, or even Die Hard. There's something about managing to Get It Done that just hits the brain's pleasure centers in the right way. 

Why Now Is a Great Time to Revisit Ocean's Eleven, Now Streaming on Peacock

This is, of course, a central appeal of heist films, or at least the slick heist movies that feature crews of clever, beautiful people pulling off the seemingly impossible. But there's more to it than just making people look cool, and Ocean's Eleven (now streaming on Peacock) is proof of that. Steven Soderbergh's classic heist movie could have easily just been an excuse for a bunch of famous people to hang out together, a star vehicle coasting on the appeal of its leads and the sheer magnitude of fame within it cast. Instead, thanks to Soderbergh and the entire filmmaking team, it became something much more: a film about people who are good at their jobs made by people who are good at their jobs.

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The first obstacle to pulling off any heist movie isn't really about the plotting. Yes, putting all the pieces in place for a satisfying caper is very important, but if you're going to make a movie about crooks, you need to first establish why it's worth following, and rooting for, this crew. Casting George Clooney and Brad Pitt as the two heads of the job, Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan, is a good first step, of course. If you were going to the movies in 2001, there's a very good chance you already knew and liked both of these guys, so making them into two handsome, charming, clever thieves works very well, and Soderbergh does a masterful job of padding out the rest of the title team. You've got Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, and more, all working together to form a team that has its kinks and its problems, yes, but works like clockwork as an ensemble.

And speaking of clockwork, the film's success owes a great deal to the sheer meticulous energy with which Soderbergh puts all the pieces together. Working with editor Stephen Mirrione and cinematographer Peter Andrews, Soderbergh shoots the film like a cool breeze on a Vegas night, making every shot, every scene, every little piece of business for every character into something worth studying, worth focusing on until it leaves the screen. That means two things: that every piece of the film is compelling, and that we're paying attention to every gag, every bait and switch, right up until the film's final reveals. 

Tess (Julia Roberts) wears a beige jacket while talking to Terry (Andy Garcia) in Ocean's Eleven (2001).

Like we said, this is a movie made by people who are good at their jobs, so it makes sense that Soderbergh and company would make things work behind the camera. It also makes sense that the cast, led by Clooney and Pitt, would excel in front of the camera, but again, this could have easily just been a star vehicle, a cash grab in a slick package. What makes Ocean's Eleven soar beyond that is the human moments within the clever heist narrative. 

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It begins with Danny Ocean, an ex-con just out of prison who decides, immediately, that his first order of business is robbing three casinos at the same time. He goes to Rusty, his best friend, to put a crew together, using whatever means of coaxing he has to in order to build the team, and then they set about the business of knocking over these casinos because "the house always wins" until you bet big on a perfect hand, and then "you take the house." Of course, Danny doesn't tell anyone that he's robbing the casinos owned by the current suitor (Andy Garcia) of his ex-wife (Julia Roberts), but even with that little piece of motivation in mind, the more we watch Ocean's, the more it feels like there's something more at work. 

Yes, Danny is going after these casinos for personal reasons, but over the course of the film, through the performances and the direction and the way the story sneakily embeds emotional truths into the intricacies of the plot, his mission becomes about something else. Each of the eleven men at the heart of the film needs this job to work, and not just for financial reasons. They need it because they're each in search of something, a sense of fulfillment beyond the petty thievery and botched jobs that have occupied their time up until now. Whatever they need, they find it in each other, and that means that Ocean's Eleven is not just a great heist movie, but a great hangout movie and, most importantly, a great movie about the depths of friendship.

And beyond that... well, it's just cool

Ocean's Eleven is now streaming on Peacock.

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