[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, August 7, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
After years of mishandling by Hollywood, crime novelist Elmore Leonard has been on a roll. Get Shorty, Barry Sonnenfeld’s larky look behind the scenes of Tinseltown itself, reaffirmed the second coming of John Travolta and also, by the novelist’s own testimony, made Leonard aware that his books are funny. (He writes them straight, which is how his characters live them.) Quentin Tarantino turned Rum Punch into Jackie Brown and enhanced both Tarantino and Leonard in the process. Now comes Out of Sight—for sheer snap, verve, and professionalism, arguably the best of the bunch.
Like all Leonard’s stuff, Out of Sight is character-driven, and the characters are pips. Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a twinkling-eyed habitual criminal who virtually talks bank tellers out of their money; we see him at work in a deft, impeccably cut prologue the book didn’t bother with but Scott Frank’s screenplay is well-advised to include. Nabbed minutes later, Foley is tossed into a Florida pen, out of which he almost immediately breaks by co-opting some other cons’ escape tunnel. Federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) just happens to be standing at the other end (don’t worry, it makes perfect sense), and in a meet-cute worthy of Hollywood’s golden age, she and Jack soon find themselves spooned in the trunk of his getaway car discussing their favorite movies. Of course, they wouldn’t be if Karen had any room to draw her hideout gun. By the time she gets the chance, she has distinctly mixed feelings about putting Jack away.
That delicious indecision is gloriously sustained as the twosome’s paths part and recross several times. Karen listens to her retired-cop dad (Dennis Farina) admonish her about her bad choice in boyfriends (among whom Jack represents considerable progress). Jack plots with his buddy Buddy (Ving Rhames) to head north to Detroit and appropriate a fortune in uncut diamonds from the home of a Michael Millken type (Albert Brooks) they once did time with in another penitentiary. Peripheral complications are variously supplied by their encyclopedically clueless partner Glenn (Steve Zahn), Jack’s tolerant ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), vengeful convict Chico (Luis Guzman), and a cadre of evil-eyed Detroiters headed by the mercurially murderous Maurice “Don’t call me Snoopy” Miller (Don Cheadle). They’re a delight to meet—including a couple of surprise cameos—and the cast playing them is tone-perfect.
Although developed by the Get Shorty team (Barry Sonnenfeld exec-produced), Out of Sight was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who had somewhat lost his way since his 1989 indie debut, sex, lies & videotape. Whatever we might have expected from him, it wasn’t a sleek, buoyant, supremely assured mainstream comedy-thriller-romance. (By contrast, The Underneath, his admirable Criss Cross remake of a few years ago, was an arthouse meditation on film noir.) Not least among his achievements, Soderbergh’s persuaded George Clooney to forgo his Doug Ross mannerisms in favor of a breezy, early-Gary-Cooper naturalism. And Jennifer Lopez’s Karen is a breakout performance—tough and sexy, with the vulnerability that is the price of intelligence. – Richard T. Jameson