Posted: 02/01/2001

 

Out of Sight

(1996)

by Del Harvey



Breakthrough work from director Steven Soderbergh.


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Elmore Leonard is one of the best writers of dialogue—period. Pick up one of his books and open it to any page, flip through to another, and you will find dialogue dominates his work. He creates characters, tells stories, describes worlds and situations superbly with dialogue. He captures the imagination and gives one of the quickest reads of any author—period. And his style is extremely cinematic. His books have been turned into films since the 1950’s, when his most-favored genre was The Western. In the 70’s he turned to mystery and suspense novels with equal success. The filmed versions of his novels are well-known and recognizable, from the late-night perennial favorites Hombre and Mr. Majestyk to the recent Jackie Brown and Get Shorty.

While his style has lent itself to easy translation to the screen, my personal favorite interpretation is by director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, The Limey, Erin Brockovich). In transferring the text to film, Soderbergh retains the wit without losing the threat. His choices in shooting style, in connecting plotlines, in actors, in every detail, are right on the money in his interpretation of Leonard’s Out Of Sight.

As is often the case with Leonard, the hero is anti-hero, the moral is tried-and-true-with-a-twist, and the really tough guys—and girls—usually have their humorous sides. In Out Of Sight, George Clooney is perfectly cast as Jack Foley, a three-time loser in whom the system is so engrained that he cannot make the jump to legitimate life no matter how hard he tries. His partner, Ving Rhames, is a career criminal whose Achilles heel is his religion-spouting sister, who seems bent upon scaring him silly with her premonitions. And herein lies the beauty of Leonard’s craftmanship; we never meet or even see Rhames’ sister. She is always discussed as a side-topic between the two friends. Yet we “know” her, imagine what she looks like, what she sounds like, from their conversations.

When Rhames aids in Clooney’s escape from a Florida prison, Jennifer Lopez stumbles right into the middle. She may be a sheriff, but she’s is not wearing a uniform at the time. What she is wearing would entice any heterosexual male; a tight, short skirt and a crisp, tight blouse. Clooney wastes no time deciding to use her car for their getaway, or in stuffing her in the trunk and then climbing in and snuggling up behind her. The dialogue they share as Rhames pilots the getaway car away from the prison is truly odd and wickedly funny, and is the start for one of the most incredible and far-fetched romances in recent film history.

Additional elements are thrown in as the plot progresses, all equally true to the Leonard manifesto. Don Cheadle (Traffic, The Family Man) portrays a career criminal of the most violent kind whose destiny seems intertwined with Clooney’s. Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas and Saving Silverman) as Glenn is a dopey wannabe criminal who has so much trouble coming up with a snappy comeback it is difficult to imagine him ever planning a heist. There’s a cameo by Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette, an FBI agent, a would-be suitor to Lopez, and a recurring character in Leonard’s books, and Keaton played the same character in Get Shorty. Luis Guzman (Traffic, The Limey, Boogie Nights), one of the best supporting actors in the business, is another alumnus of the same Florida prison and outstanding at providing comedy relief. Albert Brooks is excellent as the scheming, paranoid securities trader facing jail time with this motley crew.

Soderbergh seems to have fun with this film, and so does everyone else. Lopez seems to be more of an actress and less the goofy, wannabe rapper she seems to have become of late. And Clooney’s turn is stellar and air-tight as he breathes life into another of Leonard’s quirky leading men. Out Of Sight satisfies on many levels, and should be a joy to all.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He is a survivor of Lucasfilm, the Walt Disney Company, and the Directors Guild of America.



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