Out of Sight's opening sequence is one of the most delightfully witty heist scenes you'll ever see: a suave man dressed in business attire approaches the counter and charmingly tells the clerk that his partner, currently speaking to one of the managers as if opening an account, will shoot the man in the head if she makes one false move. The plan goes off without a hitch -- the robber knows not to take the bills at the bottom of the register, does his best to keep the clerk calm, and he walks out of the bank without anyone the wise. Then his getaway car doesn't start.
That's Out of Sight in a nutshell: a deftly cool comedy of errors, one whose characters have all the details in place save the most basic. Jack Foley (George Clooney) has been robbing banks since adolescence, so many he's lost count, and he views prison as more of a timeout than a punishment. Enlisting the help of two of his buddies -- well, maybe just one buddy and a mutual acquaintance -- Jack stages a break-out and ensures his success by ratting out another potential escapee to divert attention.
In his escape, he happens to meet U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), who is stuffed into the trunk of her own car along with Foley while his accomplice Buddy (Ving Rhames) drives them to safety. Because this is a film, Karen and Jack develop an instant attraction to each other. Because this film is based on an Elmore Leonard novel, it is somehow brilliant.
Soderbergh captures Leonard's deft characterizations, witty dialogue and involving plot with aplomb: Clooney and Lopez have such believable sexual tension that your TV will probably give off static electricity when you're done watching the film. The dynamic between them, and the question of whether Sisco pursues Foley out of love or to take him down, creates a sexual tension rarely felt in your average, manufactured rom-com, a genre that, for all of Out of Sight's crime elements and Soderbergh's inventive camera trickery, seems to be the best fit for the film.
The rest of the cast excels with the material as well; Rhames then had numerous thug/crime boss roles under his belt, but here he serves as Jack's conscience, practically begging Foley to, just once, think before he acts but unfailing in his support for his friend. Only on a second viewing did I even recognize Albert Brooks as a millionaire we meet in a flashback of one of Foley's stints of prison, using his finances to ensure his safety, particularly from Don Cheadle's Snoopy Miller, a sadistic thug who milks the terrified white-collar criminal for all he can.
Steve Zahn shows up as Glenn, the accomplice nobody wants on his team but always knows just enough to justify his position in the crew. Zahn steals most of his scenes, because he's Steve Zahn; his goofy charm provides overt comic relief in a film already bouncing with cleverness, but he brings enough paranoia and self-awareness to the stoned fool to anchor him to the story. Perhaps my pro-Zahn bias influenced my perception of the character: I adore Steve Zahn, and he makes every film he graces with his presence just that much better. Hell, I even enjoyed the National Treasure movies because Justin Bartha's character reminded me of Steve Zahn.
Soderbergh does not simply rely on these killer performances to see him through to the end, however. With editor Anne V. Coates, who also photographed Lawrence of Arabia(!), Soderbergh enacts a creative rebirth after being largely cast aside through the early '90s. Shots end in freeze-frames and softly fade into the next one. As he would do in his future films, Soderbergh plays audio from some other shot under another; is the audio a memory? A dream? If so, whose memory or dream is it? The editing adds to the mystery of the relationship, so that when Jack and Karen meet in a bar, it's anyone's guess whether the scene will end with the two shagging, in a car returning Jack to prison, or with one character jolting out of bed sweating from that crazy dream they just had. Soderbergh further displays his off-kilter and often brilliant cinematic sensibilities by casting Michael Keaton as FBI Agent Ray Nicolette, the same role he played in Jackie Brown. I don't know if this is the only time that an actor has played the same role in two unlinked films made by separate directors, but there's something so exciting about the way Soderbergh makes cinema a part of his movies.
I can't find much to criticize about Out of Sight. It's dense and it folds back on itself more than once, but that only adds to the film's intrigue. It has all the wit and cheek of the Ocean's films without their narcissism, giving each character their foibles to balance out their first-impression personalities. The cast uniformly excels, and they look like they're having fun with the material without forgetting why they're there. But for all the bouncy quality of the actors and the wit that flows freely from their mouths, Out of Sight occasionally puts forward a moment of simple, effective truth. How many other heist films would allow their protagonist the clarity to ask of their plan, "Do you know anyone who did one last big score and then gone on to live the good life?"