The US Marshal gets her man: Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998)
[11 years ago, in a small theater in Carbondale Illinois, I happened upon a little-known and under-promoted film while writing for a local Arts newspaper, and I was very impressed. Out of Sight has since become my favorite of Soderbergh's directorial efforts. It shows Clooney's potential to become a genuine movie star. For that matter, has Jennifer Lopez been in anything better? Here's my time-capsule review.]
Ever since the success of Get Shorty, Hollywood has rushed to adapt any remaining Elmore Leonard material to the screen. His streetwise dialogue, macabre sense of humor, and well-researched crime details have moviemakers translating his work to the big screen with devotional fervor. A master crime novelist, Leonard has cranked out a thriller a year for who knows how long (Paul Newman's Hombre was adapted in 1967). His stories usually involve a misfit band of criminals and one lone law enforcement officer. Quentin Tarantino adapted and directed last winter's disappointing Jackie Brown. Now, Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) trumps Tarantino by directing the superior Out of Sight, based on the 1996 novel of the same name.
Here, George Clooney plays Jack Foley, a likably smarmy bank robber who escapes from a Florida prison only to stumble across U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) out in the parking lot at night. His accomplice, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames) grabs her from behind and then kidnaps her by placing her with Jack in the trunk of his car. Thrown together in this meet-cute way, getting to know each other, as it were, across the gulf between the criminal and the law-enforcing, Jack and Karen strike up an unlikely rapport, discussing movies like Bonnie and Clyde and 3 Days of the Condor.
In the old Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, the romantic leads were handcuffed together. Here, they share an airless but cozy ride in the trunk of a Ford. Later, Karen will whip out a huge Magnum pistol and try to shoot her way out of the trunk, but the die has been cast: they will spend the rest of the movie looking for a "time out" from cops and robber games to get to know each other better.
While Clooney's acting has improved by simply refraining from waggling his head in false modesty, Lopez shows she could project torrid sensuality dressed in a feed sack. Her character blends movie star glamour with the kind of federal marshal smarts that Tommy Lee Jones displayed in The Fugitive. If men try to mess with her, she produces a retractable metallic wand out of her purse and thwacks them across the arms or pistol whips them before handcuffing them to a balcony.
For the most part, Out of Sight is masterfully done, provided you have the patience for character development. Elmore Leonard characters tend to talk too much at times, a trait that works better on the page than on the screen, but otherwise Steven Soderbergh sets up scenes with auteurish finesse. He mixes up the chronology much like Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction, throwing in a little flashback jailhouse exposition midway through to keep us off balance, teasing us with a little asequential crosscutting during the major seduction scene. He also likes Martin Scorsese freeze frames and Godardian jump cuts. Moreover, Elliot Davis' cinematography impressed me with its tacky orange glow in Florida and the moody wintry blues in Detroit. Did I mention the strong supporting roles by Albert Brooks (a Wall Street crook), Don Cheadle (a murdering creep), and Steven Zahn (a bumbling pothead)? Did I say that Danny Devito helped produce, and Samuel L. Jackson shows up for one scene? That this might be the most passionate movie of the summer? Elmore Leonard never had it so good.