First things first, Ocean’s Thirteen is better than its predecessor, yet not as good as the first film. Given the characteristics of the first two, it would have been deeply surprising if this had not been the case. Spoilers aplenty ahead.
I was very surprised by Ocean’s Thirteen most fundamental weakness. Who would have thought that the combination of Pacino and Barkin would prove so toothless, both on camera and as part of the structure of the story? Andy Garcia received insufficient credit for his work in the first two films. His Terry Benedict, a channelling of Michael Corleone without the conflicted soul, was at the same time sophisticated and genuinely menacing. It becomes clear enough early in the first that Benedict wouldn’t hesitate to wipe out the entire crew, and indeed this menace drives the entire second film. Moroever, the heist in the first film works by playing off Benedict’s sophistication and brutality. Danny and the boys don’t so much outsmart Benedict as turn his brilliance and ruthlessness against him. It’s also clear, even in the first, that Benedict does not consider the fight over. If Danny and the boys are to be judged by quality of victim, Benedict proved an appropriate foil in the first two films.
Furthermore, it’s not surprising that the only watchable scenes in Ocean’s Twelve come when either Garcia or Vincent Cassel are on screen. That time out, Benedict proved so menacing that the gang decided to submit rather than try to fight. They manage to defeat Toulour, but win by redefining the game rather than outperforming him. The method ended up being cinematically unsatisfying (wholly apart from the horrificaly indulgent Julia Robert’s arc), but the viewer nevertheless comes away with an understanding that, by defeating Toulour, the gang has achieved something. Toulour’s menace survives the second film just as Benedict’s survived the first.
So, given that a faux-Michael Corleone was so great in the first, what could be better than bringing in Don Coreleone himself for the third? Giving Pacino Barkin as a lieutenant also seemed inspired on paper. But what do we get? Nothing. Pacino’s Bank ends up being a mildly charismatic thug, quickly overtaken by events and hanged by his own ineptitude. He’s supposed to be a brilliant and ruthless operator, even more so than Benedict, but he falls for a series of pathetically transparent scams, from Pitt’s earthquake machine to Reiner’s (weak) impersonation of a hotel reviewer to the Bernie Mac-Andy Garcia kabuki with the domino machine. Sure, Terry Benedict fell for the Lyman Zerger con, but it was in part his distrust of the situation that made the con work. Barkin proves ridiculously easy to deal with. Simply put, Willy Bank would not have survived long enough in a world of Terry Benedict’s to prove a threat to Ocean and the crew. The competition ended up being as one sided as this year’s NBA Finals.
That said, there are plenty of cheerfully interesting moments, and Soderbergh has a way with Las Vegas. The Godfather quips were amusing enough, and Gould was an inspired catatonic. The Mexico stuff was kind of funny. Overall, I think I have to concur with Matt Duss:
I kind of saw it as the movie that Ocean’s Eleven might have been, had that movie not been so much better than it should have been.