Deep into Ocean's 13, the second sequel to the 2001 remake of the 1960 Rat Pack classic Ocean's 11, there's a line about how a good con man never repeats a gag. It's delivered as a throwaway piece of dialogue, but it quietly acknowledges that what good con men can't get away with, good directors sometimes can. Rebounding from the frothy, bloodless Euro jaunt Ocean's 12, 13 returns Steven Soderbergh and crew to Las Vegas for a film that isn't exactly a remake of their first Ocean's adventure, but isn't exactly not, either.
It doesn't matter. Ocean's 11's easy chemistry and effortless style return alongside the let's-take-down-a-casino plot. In this case, the target is the gorgeous—and fictional—Bank Casino, a spiraling, faintly Asian-themed high-rise run by Al Pacino and his scantily clad aide de camp Ellen Barkin. Having sent Elliott Gould into a coma after cheating him out of his rightful stake in the casino, Pacino rouses the ire of Clooney and his crew, who conspire to take him and his elaborately defended gambling palace down.
The pleasure here, as before, comes from watching skilled professionals team up for a job well done. That's true both of the film's characters and its creators. It's an extremely well-made film, from the blustery humor of Carl Reiner impersonating a British judge for the coveted Five Diamond hotel awards to the sly incorporation of left-wing politics as Casey Affleck—working undercover at a Mexican factory in order to rig a set of dice—becomes a revolutionary leader. Behind the camera, Soderbergh once again spares no flourish, gliding across the casino floor one moment, splitting the screen into half a dozen harmoniously edited images the next.
The series has never found a subplot as affecting as the thorny, sweet reconciliation of Clooney and Julia Roberts (who's entirely absent this time around). But as an 11-way (12-way?, 13-way?) love story about men united by a respect for tradition and a commitment to professionalism, it's also far from heartless. In a town increasingly dominated by cheats and fakers without honor, their kind of con men are a dying breed. It almost begs to be read as a comment on Hollywood. A maverick committed to working within the system and reshaping it for his own purposes, Soderbergh has aligned himself with some of the few stars who seem to understand that cashing a paycheck doesn't have to come at the expense of finding quality projects, even when those projects have no higher purpose than two breezy, familiar hours of sophisticated entertainment.