I’d like to say that I rewatched this film adaptation on learning the sad news a few days ago of author Elmore Leonard’s death, but the truth is that I had got home after watching Michael Bay’s hypersaturated Floridian-set Pain & Gain and wanted something of a palate cleanser: a heist movie set in Florida that did not make me despair of my fellow humans. As it happens, though, it’s also my favourite of the many Elmore Leonard film adaptations over the years, though Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — almost contemporaneous and featuring Michael Keaton playing the same role — gives it a close run to my mind.
The film has many strengths. The plot may be high concept — a bank robber falls in love with a federal agent is at its core, though the film is structured around a big concluding heist — but it hardly seems to be much more than a skeleton on which to hang the elements that really make the film. There’s the setting I’ve already mentioned: the warm saturated colours of Florida are contrasted with the cold grey surfaces of Detroit (allowing Soderbergh another opportunity to use his favoured coloured filters on the camera). Then there’s the pop-culture inflected banter of the dialogue, which seems to fall with easy grace from the actors’ mouths.
Most of all, though, there’s the excellent acting ensemble that Soderbergh has assembled. George Clooney plays bankrobber Jack, and Jennifer Lopez is federal agent Karen, and neither seems better suited to a role than here, but then Soderbergh’s camera is rose-tinted to a fault. In some ways, the techniques used here are not hugely different from those in Michael Bay’s film, but are just used more judiciously — there are freeze frames and jump cuts, slow-motion and some nice use of reflective surfaces, all seemingly in the service of making these two characters as gorgeous and glamorous as possible. At the heart of the film is a strikingly tender scene when Jack and Karen get together, and the editing is largely lifted from Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a loving hommage indeed.
Of course, the story of these central characters would never have the same impact without the depth of character actors featured here. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle play Jack’s friend and antagonist respectively, while Steve Zahn has a stand-out performance as slow-witted accomplice Glenn, competing with the similarly-slapstick Luis Guzmán for the film’s comedy relief. There’s Albert Brooks as the prickly trader whose wealth is the heist’s target, while Dennis Farina (who also sadly died earlier this year) has a small role as Karen’s dad, but he invests it with far more warmth — and biting sarcasm when Michael Keaton’s FBI agent Ray is around — than such a small role would usually warrant.
It’s that generosity of Soderbergh’s film and Scott Frank’s script (presumably taking its cue from Leonard’s novel) — the willingness to give the same fond attention to even the smallest character as is lavished on the leads — that makes me especially fond of it. In fact, it ranks among my favourite films, and somehow renews my faith in humanity (while still presenting a range of murderous and criminal behaviours) even under the heaviest of assaults.
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 1998 (and on other occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 25 August 2013).