It is exceedingly rare for a sequel to match its predecessor, and even more rare for the third installment to do the same. Equally rare: that a filmmaker would return to write and direct those sequels, risking the fate of diminishing returns. But Steven Soderbergh defied skepticism with the Ocean's trilogy, delivering sequels that not only matched the preceding films, but increased the stakes, offering richer, more stylistic and increasingly (but delightfully) absurd plots.
Watching Ocean's Eleven now, the film immediately feels dated from the opening scenes: Brad Pitt's Rusty teaches poker to a table filled with a roster of celebrities popular in 2001 - Shane West (remember him?), Joshua Jackson (who bounced back from his Pacey days just a few years later), Barry Watson, Topher Grace and Holly Marie Combs. It's not just the celeb cameos that feel dated, but Soderbergh's style of filmmaking. While the music, plot and movement evoke a '70s era heist film, his editing and color choices evoke the early '00s.
Soderbergh improved on his style with Ocean's Twelve in 2004, and even more so with Ocean's Thirteen in 2007. While many find the sequels inferior (particularly the third film), with each sequel, Soderbergh hones and perfects his style. By Thirteen, his editing is on point, and the cast's chemistry is effortless. Seeing Brad Pitt and George Clooney share a hilariously tearful moment while watching Oprah might be the most enjoyable moment in all three films - and yet it's so incredibly simple.
It's all in the details with Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy, from the way Pitt's Rusty is always eating, to Clooney's cavalier and charming performance as the titular Danny Ocean (he's essentially playing himself, but who could complain). The heist is the conceit, but the tone is so smooth and comedic, almost seductive, really - mirrored in the attractiveness of its cast. Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Vincent Cassel and the eternally cool Elliott Gould, who becomes more delightful with each passing year. Those little character quirks and details - from the way the team can understand everything Yen says even though he speaks in Chinese, to Pitt and Clooney's natural shorthand with one another - are what makes these films work when they almost shouldn't.
The plots become increasingly complex with each installment, almost laughable in their absurdity, and yet rotating adversaries like Vincent Cassel's impeccably alluring Night Fox, Zeta-Jones' gorgeously clever Isabel Lahiri and Andy Garcia's pompous Terry Benedict offer exciting challenges to the team's dynamic - this opposition brings the men closer together, surprisingly improving upon a chemistry that already feels perfect.
Their perceived failures are always revealed as part of the larger plan, and there's always a helpful peer waiting to bail them out at the 11th hour - and while these elements become predictable by Thirteen, there's something undeniably satisfying in seeing how it all plays out. Those expository, elaborate third acts make the films basically seem like the Saw franchise for scotch-drinking grown-ups with dinner reservations. Equally as complex and ridiculous, but bloodless and far less messy - and also, you know, enjoyable.
It could be argued that each sequel is lesser than its predecessor due to the predictability of their structure, but to assess the Ocean's trilogy on the basis of each film's plots and to gauge their enjoyability based on third act reveals is to do them (and yourself) a disservice. These are character-driven films that succeed largely due to the charisma of the cast and their exceptional rapport.
Although complex on a surface-level, these are simple but elegant films, ones that are enjoyed best by letting them wash over you - like Soderbergh's own Singani 63 liquor, the flavor was perfected over time with each new edition. They blend well together (much like the cast) and go down smoothly. And like all great spirits, Soderbergh only improves with age - each film better than the last. The Ocean's trilogy is like a small slice of the director's evolutionary timeline, as we watch Soderbergh hone and refine his style over the course of three films. They are all incredibly similar in plot, essentially offering the director a chance to polish and tweak the same project, like repeating a science experiment over and over until you get it just right. These films are the lab in which Soderbergh experiments with style, character and storytelling - and while they seem to be lacking in depth, they're a great foundation on which to build.
You can trace Soderbergh's evolution throughout his entire filmography, but the Ocean's trilogy is a truncated portfolio, perfectly evincing his stylistic maturation.