The clean dozen: Everyone's trying to be greatest thief

Sometimes the actors onscreen look like they're really having fun. They say what they have to say and do what they have to do to tell the story, but they don't make it look like they're working. If the movie's good, the audience shares in their fun; if it's bad, they resent it.

The 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven was a good movie. The viewer felt like a fly on the wall at a Hollywood party, watching a big beautiful cast having a good time. Even when they were being downright silly, they never broke the fourth wall to wink at the audience.

The idea of a sequel has the easy-money smell of a tour by a sexagenarian rock band, but Ocean's Twelve recaptures all that was good about Eleven with enough new ideas that no one can be accused of coasting.

Assuming our familiarity with the characters, director Steven Soderbergh and new screenwriter George Nolfi quickly reintroduce them while setting the new plot in motion. Danny Ocean and the 10 cohorts he assembled to steal $160 million from three of Terry Benedict's (Andy Garcia) Las Vegas casinos have settled into relatively honest lives. Danny is remarried to Tess (Julia Roberts), the most valuable thing he stole from Benedict, and they're preparing to celebrate their "second third anniversary."

Suddenly Benedict tracks everyone down and gives them two weeks to pay him back with interest– or else– and everyone knows his "or else" is not to be taken lightly.

Having collectively spent about half the money they need to repay, there's no honest way they can earn close to $100 million in that time, and they're "too hot to work anywhere in this country." At least that's the excuse to set the bulk of the movie in Europe, and who's going to argue?

Rusty (Brad Pitt) is Danny's co-captain. Linus (Matt Damon) is still the runt of the litter but with ambitions of moving up. Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) is the electrician. Turk (Scott Caan) and Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck) are transportation experts. Frank Catton (Bernie Mac) is a safecracker who's very particular about his nails. Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) is a tech geek. Yen (Shaobo Qin) is an acrobat who can squeeze into small places. Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) is an old crook who's always ready to come out of retirement. Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) financed the Vegas job for revenge on Benedict.

After a botched heist in Amsterdam, it's discovered that this whole thing was set up as a competition to discover who is the greatest thief in the world. The challenger is a Frenchman known as the "Night Fox" (Vincent Cassel). How better to sell a movie to Middle America than having our heroes defend our national honor against the French... even if the competition is in illegal activities and we're ganging up 11 (or more) against the Frenchman? (The uneven odds may stem from the fact that the script was originally written as a generic thriller and adapted to accommodate the Ocean gang.)

The target is the 1896 Fabergé Coronation Egg, which is on display in a museum in Rome. Museum security is heavier than usual because the plot was discovered in advance by Europol detective Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who once had an affair with Rusty while investigating his Bulgari job.

Cassel does a dance around laser beams that puts the one Zeta-Jones did in Entrapment to shame, but Catherine looked better doing it.

In general, minimal time is spent on the capers, and there's a certain amount of jumping around in time to make the story unfold more interestingly.

The film's comic highlight comes when Tess's resemblance to a certain pregnant actress is exploited. The appearance of an unbilled guest star makes this seem more like a sequel to The Player than Ocean's Eleven for a few minutes.

Other "guests," though not playing themselves, are Robbie Coltrane, Eddie Izzard, Jeroen Krabbe, and Cherry Jones, who puts in a small but pivotal appearance near the end.

As cinematographer (under a pseudonym), Soderbergh gives the film a little "indie cred" with some handheld work, some iffy lighting and a generally less polished look than the usual studio production of this type, though not enough to hurt the box office.

The idea of a crime competition will probably be co-opted for a reality show if a network can figure out how to do it legally. Here, it doesn't matter whether you win or lose; it's how much fun you have playing the game that counts. These actors sure look like they're having fun, and with the U.S. playing against France, who do you think is going to win?

Ocean's Twelve is the kind of movie that makes kids want to grow up to be movie stars.