For such a cine-literate source, Elmore Leonard's low-life pulp novels have had a pretty raw deal when it comes to decent movie adaptations. There's been the downright shite (Stick), the revoltingly bland (Cat Chaser), even the meticulously flawed (Jackie Brown). His script-friendly material has always ended up blundering about the screen: miscast, misguided and misunderstood. That film-makers have so often cocked-up translating his trademark wisecracking hoods borders on injustice. Out Of Sight covers significant mileage in redressing the balance. Its effortless cool and flaw-less ensemble make it the best translation of an Elmore Leonard book yet.
That such a high-spirited caper should come from Steven Soderbergh may come as a surprise. Soderbergh, whose sex, lies and videotape turned him into something of a late '80s indie prodigy, has never fulfilled his promise, bypassing Hollywood to indulge himself in frigid thrillers like Kafka and The Underneath. It's all the more remarkable that a director famous for chilly, sub-arthouse delvings should succeed in making something as warm and playful as Out Of Sight.
Soderbergh wisely builds on the legacy of Pulp Fiction rather than lazily aping it. The camerawork favours ambient stylistics rather than ostentatious flash-hashery (the freeze-frame - - Out Of Sight's one concession to style - - is as economic as it is effective) and the intricate flashback structure teases rather than infuriates. The end result is a classic crime flick that outsmarts and outplays anything Tarantino has ever attempted.
Frank's constantly surprising screen-play may have taken liberties with some of the book's original conceits: Rhames' character has switched from white-trash hillbilly to soft-spoken dude, while the downbeat ending has been justifiably brightened up. But Frank's enthusiasm for Leonard's street-smart dialogue means it remains faithful to the sparky, low-life lingo. Better still, Soderbergh knows that, in the case of Leonard, the patter is the character. He even has the generosity to give each ensemble member their own stand-out scene with which to stamp out their idiosyncrasies.
In supporting roles, Rhames is as sturdy as ever as Foley's Catholic guilt-ridden partner, while Boogie Nights' Cheadle oozes menace as vicious swindler Snoopy. Farina (for once not playing a horrendous nylon mobster) is great fun as Sisco's ex-'tec dad, leaving Zahn to steal every scene he stumbles into as slurry stonehead Glenn Michaels, shadowing Foley like some bad-apple disciple.
But the movie really belongs to Clooney and Lopez. Until now, Clooney's been like an actor waiting to happen, in desperate need of a decent part. The laconic cool of Jack Foley offers him the chance to prove himself. Not a problem. Combining the macho drawl-delivery of John Wayne and nonchalant charm of Cary Grant, he exudes a casual charisma. But like lard-lined toilet paper, he doesn't take shit from anybody, turning in an enigmatic, career-defining performance.
It's the same for Lopez. After her nondescript, screaming shit-fits in Anaconda, she's come out of practically nowhere to claim the prize for Bright Young Thing Of '98. As Karen Sisco, she snubs the doe-eyed vulnerability of accidental heroism and stirs humour, toughness, sex appeal and good old-fashioned sass to knee-trembling effect.
Put both of them together and you have that movie manna that money can't buy - - chemistry. Here's a screen coupling with breezy repartee and slow-burn sex appeal to rank with the likesof Bogart and Bacall, Gable and Colbert, Tracy and Hepburn.
Blend in an outstanding Bullitt-inspired soundtrack by dancey knob-twiddler David Holmes, some very funny deadpan dialogue, reel after reel of must-see set pieces (a stake-out at an OAP home; a prison library brawl that turns into a catalogue posing session) and you have a serious contender for film of the year.