Forgotten Gem: Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight – Made of stars

Out of Sight

Out of Sight – 1998

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Isaiah Washington, Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Viola Davis, Michael Keaton
Screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

There was a time, before I was married, when I insisted that Jennifer Lopez must be one of the greatest actresses alive.  She added an ethereal quality to Gregory Nava’s landmark film Mi Familia, made a name for herself in the otherwise mediocre Selena, and she was delightfully repulsive in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn.  Then there was this film.  Made at the start of Soderbergh’s most fruitful period (The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven would follow), Out of Sight is one of those rare films made post Star Wars era that proved its not always the effects that have to be specia.  Out of Sight has the gift of a powerful script, a director at the peak of his powers and an unparalleled cast each doing what they do best.

George Clooney is Jack Foley, a famous convicted bank robber.  has a thing for U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Lopez), and she has a thing for him.  The problem in this scenario is that they meet when Jack is in the process of escaping from prison.  Thrown into the trunk by Foley’s friend Buddy (Rhames), they strike up one of the great meetings in cinema history.  Clooney’s disarming and charming delivery work smoothly with Lopez’ though but tender Marshal.  She exhibits intelligence and sexual tension with no ambiguity.

The moment we meet her father (the brilliant Dennis Farina) we know why she is such a hard edge.  Their back and forth show a shared passion for law enforcement, but more for figuring out  anything and everything.  A big reason this movie works is for the relationship between these characters.  Leonard knows that the way one adds romance to any situation is to remove all excess from a scene.  This way, when we see her act, her actions are entirely with purpose.  The chemistry between Farina and Lopez would be the highlight of most films.  That it is not is a tribute to the director and the lead.

Clooney’s Foley is Sisco’s equal in terms of depth.  His journey of life is a labyrinth of bank robberies and prison stays, with a few escapes thrown in for good measure.  That he is capable of displaying a flawed romantic character in the classic Leonard mold is a strength.  His character melds completely with that of Lopez.  Soderbergh gives this layered performance much added depth with cuts that unravel his story as you need the information.

Rhames’ Buddy is one of his prototypical supporting roles, much like his Mission: Impossible turns along side Tom Cruise.  Steve Zahn gives one of his most memorable characters in the lightweight Glenn Michaels.  Albert Brooks is an excellent bag of sleaze as rich guy crook Richard Ripley.  Don Cheadle is so well cast as Maurice Miller that, until Hotel Rwanda, I was certain that he would pull out a shiv in every movie he was in.

Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here.  His editing ability transcends Tarantino, given that he and Anne V. Coates cuts have exactly the feel of reading Elmore Leonard’s novels.  They are cold, precise and only containing the information needed to keep the story rolling along.  His lens work with Eliot Davis is flawless and spot on, especially in scenes like the hotel elevator / lobby  during the raid.

Scott Frank is an exceptional translator of Leonard’s words, with this film and the equally brilliant Get Shorty to his credit.  He leaves in everything that makes Leonard Leonard, allowing the characters to breathe and exude their brilliant gifts and flaws.  His most recent work, in The Wolverine, shows that he has not forgotten how to make a story flow through economy of character and dialogue.

Anyone wanting to break into the world of Elmore Leonard or Steven Soderbergh would best start here.  Once you have taken this in, you can pretty much go any direction for either artist.  Either way, this film should not be missed.

(***** out of *****)

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