Out of Sight
Screenplay : Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : George Clooney (Jack Foley), Jennifer Lopez (Karen Sisco), Ving Rhames (Buddy Bragg), Don Cheadle (Maurice "Snoopy" Miller), Dennis Farina (Marshall Sisco), Albert Brooks (Richard Ripley), Steve Zahn (Glenn Michaels)
If you've seen the poster for Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel, "Out of Sight," then you have a pretty good idea that it's a retro movie. The poster features neon orange and yellow coloring, funky round-ish lettering for the title, and large type for the blue credits in a separate black area at the bottom, all of which gives it the appearance of a relic from the late sixties or early seventies.
However, as strange and outmoded as the poster seems, it perfectly conveys the retro attitude of "Out of Sight," which ironically enough, is adapted from Leonard's most recent novel, published in 1996, instead of one his seventies' crime capers. The story could take place in today's era or twenty years ago, but the look and feel of Soderbergh's cinematic language is definitely the stuff of a slightly by-gone era remastered for the modern age. With its bass-heavy jive music score that harkens back to the early days of blaxploitation films and the use of such out-dated camera techniques as the freeze frame, Soderbergh succeeds in making the film unique and memorable.
Sometimes the freeze frames work as transitions between locations and time periods (the movie employs a great deal of flashback, and shifts locations between California, Florida, and Detroit), but sometimes they're used for a fleeting second in the middle of a scene, just to punch home the importance. Amazingly enough, these particular devices don't draw glaring attention to themselves, but rather they work perfectly with the easygoing, often comical ebb and flow of the story.
"Out of Sight" is really a love story masquerading as a crime movie. The main character is Jack Foley (George Clooney), a career bank robber with a resume of more than 200 hits without ever using a gun (an early robbery scene brings to mind the opening sequence in "Pulp Fiction"  where Tim Roth relays a tale of a man who robbed a bank with a telephone). Foley has spent the better part of the last thirty years in and out of prisons; he knows that he doesn't like it inside, and once out, he never wants to go back.
Near the beginning of the film, he is in the midst of busting out of a South Florida prison with the aid of his good friend, Buddy (Ving Rhames), when he comes face to face with Karen Sisco, the sexiest Federal Marshal ever to don a mini-skirt and pack a shotgun. Jack and Buddy have to kidnap Karen out of necessity, and Jack and Karen end up riding together in the trunk of the car as they flee the scene. And, during that short, cramped time together, something sparks between them.
In complete contrast to how the scene should play out, Jack and Karen have a surprisingly easy, witty conversation about prison life, guns, and why Karen doesn't buy the romance between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in "Three Days of the Condor" (1975) ("It happens too quickly," she complains, which is an ironic commentary on her own fast-developing relationship with Jack). By the time they get out of the car, Jack doesn't know if he wants to continue escaping or stay with Karen, and Karen doesn't know if she wants to pursue him as a criminal or an object of desire.
Like all Elmore Leonard's novels, "Out of Sight" features a grand cast of pushers, murderers, lowlifes, and idiots. First on the list is Glenn (Steve Zahn), Jack and Buddy's so-called accomplice, who's so stoned and stupid that he ends up ditching them by the side of the highway. Then there's Don Cheadle ("Boogie Nights," "Bulworth") as Maurice "Snoopy" Miller, an ex-boxer-turned-career-criminal with whom Jack maintains an uneasy relationship. Jack and Snoopy end up competing with each other to cash in on a big score, the robbing of $5 million in uncut diamonds from a rich, crooked businessman named Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks), with whom they spent prison time.
But the score is really secondary. Like most of Leonard's stories, "Out of Sight" is more about character and atmosphere than it is about plot. Leonard's novels tend to occupy a world all their own, and the screenplay for "Out of Sight" (by Scott Frank, who also adapted Leonard's "Get Shorty" in 1995), makes the film feel right at home. Only Leonard could concoct a plausible romance between a career criminal and a Federal Marshal, or write a scene where a father lovingly gives his daughter, much to her delight, an automatic pistol for her birthday. There are a couple of scenes that really give you the feeling that you are in Leonard's personal universe, including a brief surprise cameo by Michael Keaton reprising his role as FBI agent Ray Nicolet from "Jackie Brown" (1997).
But the best thing about the movie is the scorching sexual chemistry between Clooney and Lopez, both of whom are at the top of their game. Clooney is a little less cloying and self-assured than usual, but he still exudes the right amount of confidence for his character. Lopez, last seen as the sultry femme fatale in Oliver Stone's "U-Turn" (1997), simply sizzles; she looks great in a short dress and can kick tail with the best of them, but more importantly, she comes across as a believable, sympathetic, intelligent woman who is rightly confused about her feelings for Clooney.
Everything about the romance between these two is doomed from the start (in order for it to work, he would have to go straight or she would have to turn to crime, neither of which is likely to happen), but they have this inexplicable attraction to each other that is undeniable. The simple fact that it seems so wrong is what makes it work so well on-screen.
Soderbergh puts together a great scene near the middle of the film, with Clooney and Lopez finally sitting down together at a bar, sharing a drink. Their shy banter is simply dripping with sexual tension, and Soderbergh heightens the atmosphere by intercutting the conversation with scenes to come in the hotel room upstairs. The sex scene is filmed exactly as a good sex scene should be -- it's filled with passion and intensity without being gratuitous or overlong. And -- here's the kicker -- the two characters actually have an intelligent conversation afterwards about the meaning of their relationship.
Simply put, "Out of Sight" represents a piece of great moviemaking from a pulpish story that could have easily been obnoxious or unbelievable or both. Although Soderbergh, once the crowned prince of indie movies with "sex, lies, and videotape" (1989), seems an odd choice to helm this movie, he's actually perfect. Soderbergh is brave enough to push the boundaries of the modern genre by borrowing liberally from the past, and giving it that extra spin to make it feel fresh and original. A more conventional director might not have been so daring, and the movie would have probably been typical and ultimately forgettable.
©1998 James Kendrick