Troy Patterson
January 08, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

”Out of Sight” pays homage to recent classics

At the start of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, George Clooney pulls a robbery of such dizzying suavity that he could only have learned it from the movies: He has stormed from a Miami skyscraper in a burst of dumb rage and whipped his necktie to the pavement — freeze-frame here, Clooney caught mid-heave as in some ’70s cop show. Then he strides into a bank and, gently bluffing, tells the teller that a bystander — nodding to a nearby man talking with a banker — will start firing bullets if she doesn’t fill a bag with cash. He kindly relieves her of it.

This is, in essence if not detail, the heist the hood played by Tim Roth describes at the start of Pulp Fiction. That Soderbergh, a wry genius whose sex, lies, and videotape reinspired U.S. indie film in 1989, should borrow a riff from Quentin Tarantino, another indie virtuoso whose Pulp Fiction first exhilarated us in 1994, is neither cute homage nor simple larceny. Rather, Soderbergh has explored Tarantino’s terrain — playing on his reanimated anachronisms and hyperacute allusions, his feeling for the possibilities of stylized small talk and the occult connections made by compulsive moviegoers — and made the most subtle, sensuous film to come out of Hollywood in the last year.

And it is very much a Hollywood film in its taste for high-gloss glamour and old noir trickiness, which may lead fans of the spare, arty sex, lies, and videotape to wonder: Nine years and this is what he comes up with? In fact, Out of Sight is a natural advance. Sex, which details a stretch of spiritual tundra lately mapped by Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz, is about a slimily vulnerable Baton Rouge lawyer who cheats on his frigid wife with her sister. Drifting in to smash the trio’s smugness is James Spader’s Graham, a college friend of the husband’s. Graham is impotent, satisfied only by watching his videotaped interviews with women talking about sex. The director has said that the film — a chamber piece about obsession, deception, and the temptation to let motion pictures stand in for emotion — is ”emotionally” autobiographical.

So, six ambitious films later, this movie-mad auteur sets to work in a noir climate defined by Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s second film is a scrambled triptych of dime-store dramas, a wholly accessible update of Godard’s French-fried gangster films, starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as chatty hitmen, Bruce Willis as a half-punchy boxer, and Uma Thurman as a spoiled gun moll. Myriad hacks have aped its knowing tone, fractured chronology, and obsessive pop references, while almost willfully missing its point.

Tarantino, a textbook case of information overload, takes sublime delight in the movie’s movieness. Jackson’s gangster is a character conscious that he must ”get into character” to intimidate some punks. Willis, unexpectedly called on to execute swordplay, moves with such startling elegance it’s as if he momentarily becomes a samurai-movie hero. Shlock devices — say, a slo-mo shot of Ving Rhames cocking a gun — are weighted to carry ironic kitsch value, genuinely thrilling trashiness, and (thereby) sophisticated effect.

Like Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Out of Sight began as an Elmore Leonard novel; the finest of all hack writers churns out paperback fantasias marked by a playfulness that lends itself well to the directors’ visions. (The films even share a costar and character, Michael Keaton’s federal agent Ray Nicolette; on the Out of Sight DVD, Soderbergh says he visited Tarantino’s editing room to chec out Keaton’s act.) Sight‘s freeze-frames, slow fades, and (in a scene between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, the marshal on his tail) evocative voiceovers are old tricks that feel new because they prove essential rather than ornamental. Style here is substantive.

Plotwise, Pulp Fiction‘s inventions stoked the mind for Sight‘s flashily economical flashbacks. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank lay it out elliptically: As Clooney’s Jack Foley and his buddy Buddy (Rhames) set off for one last heist, the back stories actually drive the plot forward by disclosing the pair’s relations with dopey accomplice Glenn (Steve Zahn), ruthless accomplice Snoopy (Don Cheadle), and their mutual mark Ripley, who has $5 million in gems stashed in a Detroit mansion.

Out of Sight is a basic crime story made baroque by its satisfaction of the reasonable demand of an audience as jaded as Spader’s sex, lies videophile — to be tricked into believing. Tarantino’s achievement was to show us how we respond to pulp; Soderbergh’s is to show us why.

Out of Sight: A-
Pulp Fiction: A
sex, lies, and videotape: A-

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