Reheated Rat Pack

Big is not always good, but with Ocean’s Eleven , big is all there is: big budget, big noise, big confusion, big special effects, big marketing budget and a big cast the size of an armoire. In the big clamor for escapism amid the serious year-end films of higher aspirations, better quality and depressing subject matter, it will probably be a big hit. In my opinion, in case you care, it is also a big nothing. I’m not kidding myself. Such minor caveats will be, in the case of a big tank like Ocean’s Eleven , like the proverbial drip of tap water hitting the Atlantic.

It’s bad enough when Hollywood remakes the great classics and ruins them in the bargain. But when they remake bad movies without any improvement over the originals, it seems pointless. The 1960 Ocean’s Eleven was a neon nightmare, but get ready-here we go again.

The new Ocean’s Eleven , directed by the overrated critic’s darling Steven Soderbergh, is slicker, handsomer and 10 times more complicated than the original. This is Soderbergh, so light entertainment turns deep and dark as gravy, and the heavy-duty heist scenes take on an intensity best suited for intellectual bummers by Franz Kafka. The simple outline about a gang robbing seven casinos at the same time turns into a plot that would make Sinatra scratch his head. The original film was a poker game; this is nuclear physics.

From Out of Sight , Mr. Soderbergh has recruited George Clooney as the con man Danny Ocean, who leaves a New Jersey prison and heads for Vegas to assemble the world’s greatest team of thieves, grifters, card sharks, pickpockets and safecrackers to pull off the most daring scam in Las Vegas history. The goal: to knock over the Bellagio, Mirage and MGM Grand and walk away with a cool $150 million. From Erin Brockovich , Mr. Soderbergh calls on Julia Roberts to more or less play (she seems catatonic, knowing there’s no Oscar in this one) Danny’s ex-wife Tess, who is now curator of the art gallery in the posh Bellagio and shacking up with the most powerful casino owner in Vegas (Andy Garcia). The 11-man crew recruited to relieve Mr. Garcia of the fortune he locks in a vault under the Strip on the night of a world-heavyweight-championship boxing match includes Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Don Cheadle. Each man has a job, elaborately detailed and timed like an explosive. The dangerous but lucrative scheme requires auto mechanics, drivers, munitions experts, construction engineers, surveillance experts, card dealers-even a Chinese acrobat who can somersault over laser beams. It’s a diverse and highly skilled gang, edgy and competitive and loaded for bear, and watching them interface is the film’s chief entertainment.

The big problem for this crew is Mr. Garcia’s smart, ruthless and homicidal proprietor and, of course, his girl, Ms. Roberts-vengeful, hurt, hard as nails and still secretly in love with Danny Ocean-who has a few tricks up her designer sleeves nobody anticipates. Three-quarters of the film is devoted to an elaborate description of the scheme’s architecture, designed by organizational whiz Brad Pitt, while the personalities clash in dialogue that sounds like it was stolen from David Mamet (“I’m gonna get out of this car and drop you like third-period French”). The final quarter is a meticulously photographed action sequence that spares no technical detail of the heist itself. And there’s even an epilogue, in which Ms. Roberts’ character may or may not trump everyone else’s ace, opening the door to-God forbid!-a sequel.

Ocean’s Eleven is brave, courageous, brilliant, audacious–and preposterous. It’s extremely confusing, but you quickly learn to ignore the details and just watch the glam cast have fun. The film is no Rififi , but the costumes, accents, snafus, close calls and James Bond gadgets hold interest. In typical 21st-century fashion, the trend is to turn well-dressed criminals into cinematic icons–and in the minefields of Vegas, you can never tell the difference. A perfect movie for undemanding, indiscriminate viewers who require no more bang for their bucks than the sight of a lot of pretty people running around in silly wigs, making fools of themselves and getting paid obscene amounts of money to do it.

Owen Wilson In Pitt’s Shoes

Behind Enemy Lines is Spy Games with seat belts. It’s basically the same plot, only this time the action shifts to the war in Bosnia, where a rebellious Navy combat pilot crashes and it’s up to his admiral to break all the rules to save him. What is it about this sudden Hollywood passion for war movies? Can’t anyone think up any new ideas? Don’t we have enough war on cable?

Owen Wilson (indistinguishable from his brother Luke, except that he specializes in hick accents) is the bored, arrogant cowboy with a record of bad behavior unbecoming an officer and only two weeks to go on his tour of duty, who strays from the fly zone and smashes his F-18 behind enemy lines while taking photographs of a mass execution. Gene Hackman is the commanding officer who defies orders, jeopardizes the NATO peace negotiations and ruins his own military career to order an unauthorized search-and-rescue mission. While Mr. Hackman sweats it on the ship (it’s Christmas, and all that turkey is getting cold), Mr. Wilson is pursued through the snow by vicious killers of indeterminate political origin (I think they’re Serbs), crawling through land mines, open graves, machine-gun fire and exploding bombs, miraculously surviving one near-fatal episode after another with only a facial scratch-which I presume is from a razor nick, since the only people who ever grow whiskers are the enemy (I think they’re Bosnians).

After two hours of playing shoot-’em-up-and just when the murderous posse closes in (I think they’re Croats)-over the hill comes Mr. Hackman and the cavalry! The reckless gunslinger learns humility and stays in the Navy as a hero, the admiral gets demoted, and they all get home in time for New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, the audience is bewildered by Irish director John Moore’s failure to explain the difference between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Muslims. You never know who the secret police, deadly trackers and countless ground troops are, or what their ultimate goal might be in the upcoming cease-fire. We know they want Mr. Wilson’s photos, but why? The only thing certain about Behind Enemy Lines is that Mr. Wilson is in it for the chance to work with Mr. Hackman, and Mr. Hackman is in it for the money. Execute a sharp about-face and march for the exit doors.

Godfather Of Rap

Benjamin Bratt’s harrowing and electric performance anchors Piñero in place as the wayward narrative jumps from one time period to the next. Directed by Cuban-born Leon ( Sugar Hill ) Ichaso, the film is about Miguel Piñero, who rose to prominence in New York in the mid-70’s as a poet, playwright and actor whose stinging words and passionate personality spoke directly to the experience of the city’s Puerto Rican community. At the time, he was a big inspiration to Latinos, blacks and people of various ethnic backgrounds in lower-class society who were desperate to achieve some level of self-expression. Today, his violent urban poetry is considered a precursor to rap and hip-hop.

Before I saw this film, all I knew was his reputation as the author of the controversial 1974 play (and film) Short Eyes , about the horrifying experiences of a pederast who is murdered in prison. I didn’t know that Piñero based the play on firsthand knowledge developed during his own imprisonment in Sing Sing. The movie traces his disturbing trajectory from an abusive childhood to a life of petty crime, drug dealing, heroin addiction and prison-but after he served his time, and after Short Eyes received a Tony nomination and established him as a rising star, Piñero was infinitely uncomfortable with his newfound notoriety and fame.

Retreating to the comfort of the streets, he was rehabilitated to some degree by Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), a university literature professor who inspired Piñero to found a Puerto Rican theater company. But even after appearing as an actor on the TV series Kojak , Piñero’s career faded quickly as his affair with drugs plunged him even deeper into darkness and led to an early death from cirrhosis of the liver at 41.

It’s a depressing story, made more difficult by the film’s impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style, which wrecks all chances of a traditional linear narrative and ends up confounding the viewer. Still, Mr. Bratt proves that there is indeed life after Julia Roberts with a dynamic, freewheeling performance that compellingly captures the angry but charismatic personality and whirlwind lifestyle of a bad-boy genius. There are also small but unforgettable contributions by Rita Moreno and Mandy Patinkin. Reheated Rat Pack