Drop in the ocean

Film - Philip Kerr on how a laptop caper falls far short of nuclear physics

Ernest Rutherford, who made his chief contribution to science with his nuclear theory of the atom in 1911, was later of the opinion that the idea of liberating atomic energy on an industrial scale, sufficient for the creation of an atomic bomb, was "moonshine". Such a bomb, he scoffed, would require the entire resources of several large countries. This, of course, is largely what did happen. Based on the assumption that the Nazis were devoting all of their resources to the development of a nuclear weapon, the US produced plutonium on an industrial scale, at enormous cost, and the rest is history. It just goes to show you what you can do when unlimited resources are placed at your disposal.

I mention all of this because, in addition to providing a cute metaphor for the quantity of resources and the huge effort devoted to robbing a casino in Ocean's Eleven, nuclear physics plays a crucial role in the plot of this disappointing film.

Heist or caper pictures used to be a lot simpler. In Topkapi (based on Eric Ambler's excellent thriller The Light of Day), Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov required nothing more ingenious than a couple of trapeze artists to rob the eponymous palace museum in Istanbul; in The Italian Job, the whole blag rested on the nippiness of a few Mini Coopers. It was easy for audiences to comprehend both the character and value of the object of desire and the McGuffin device or skill that would enable our heroes to nick it.

But these days, no self-respecting caper is complete without a CIA Toys 'R' Us warehouse-load of computers, decryption devices, fibre-optic cameras, listening devices, rubber masks, night sights and, most important of all, inside information. Mission: Impossible I and II, The Score, and now Ocean's Eleven, are all what I would call laptop movies, wherein the only caper (from the Italian capriole) comes from the audience moving restlessly in their seats as they struggle to keep abreast of another criminal technological advance on the cosh or the pickaxe handle.

Indeed, laptops are so critical to this genre that computer companies such as Apple and Toshiba pay big money to place their sexy, slim hardware in such films. (If only they worked as well at home as they do in bank vaults: I could never get my Toshiba Portege to do much more than cast an attractive blue light on my otherwise purple features.)

George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a bank robber who comes out of jail with two things on his mind. His ex-wife Tess, played (badly) by Julia Roberts, is married to Terry Benedict, a Las Vegas casino owner, played by Andy Garcia (no less bad than Roberts). Ocean resolves to rob Benedict's casinos and get his wife back. He enlists the help of 11 uniquely skilled felons. Really, it doesn't matter what they are called or what they do, except to say that their cardinal number includes Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould and the usually excellent Don Cheadle, who reveals himself here to be the latest contender for the Dick van Dyke Award for Worst Cockney Accent (past winners: Audrey Hepburn and Johnny Depp). I can only imagine that the director, Steven Soderbergh (also usually excellent), concluded that as the original, 1960 version of this film starred two Rat Packers, among others - Sammy Davis Jr and the English soak Peter Lawford - he might combine both actors in the person of Cheadle.

The original version had many faults, not least the posturing and attitude of Frank Sinatra at his most obnoxious as Ocean; but the heist itself was an excellent bit of film-making, even if they didn't quite get away with it. In this latest version, however, the $50,000 smiles rarely ever leave the relentlessly handsome faces of Clooney and Pitt. Not once do they look challenged or perturbed by what is going on; and Soderbergh simply does not do enough to leave you with the sense that he might be trying to subvert the genre. Sadly, in this ultimately boring picture, the feeling never quite leaves you that, with all the state-of-the-art equipment and inside information at their insouciant disposal - in an early sequence, a bent security guard allows Clooney and Pitt to take home the plans of the casino vault - the guys could probably rob the kingdom of heaven if they put their minds to it.

The "nice'n'easy does it" impression this film makes is underscored by the straightforward theft, from Caltech's laboratories, of "a device" that mimics the electromagnetic pulse effect of an atomic bomb detonation. When a thermo-nuclear bomb explodes, an intense pulse of radio frequency is generated; this EMP affects both electrical equipment and the propagation medium for radio waves, which, need one say, make up the atmosphere. In the movie, the Caltech device is about the size of a large motorcycle and fits in the back of a van. Handy, eh? Ocean's 11 use it to knock out the power supply for the whole of Las Vegas, which enables our intrepid and handsome heroes to circumvent as many of the casino vault's security systems as were required by the limits of the screenwriter's palsied imagination.

It's the equivalent for the screenwriter of the "Get Out of Jail Free" card in Monopoly. Or, as Ernest Rutherford might have described it, "moonshine".

Ocean's Eleven (12) is on general release