Sometime after Pulp Fiction had already spawned a dozen knock-offs and Quentin Tarantino had moved on to the more substantial Jackie Brown, Steven Soderbergh was taking his own Pulp Fiction-infused look at Elmore Leonard with Out Of Sight. More of a straight-shooter than the homage-heavy Jackie Brown but possessing all the time jumping and black humor of Pulp Fiction, Out Of Sight is the film that turned George Clooney into a leading man and gave Soderbergh his first commercial success since Sex, Lies, & Videotape introduced the world to the director nine years prior. But on its own merit, Out of Sight is a borderline-great film that provides a surprising amount of drama and makes clichés fresh with mood and gradual character reveals.
We are introduced to Jack Foley (Clooney) when he throws off his tie and then walks into a bank and robs it without ever brandishing a weapon of any kind. Then something goes wrong, and we see him almost two years later either master-minding a prison break or ratting one out. What a way to introduce a character. The only acts we have seen him commit are robbery and betrayal and we are already rooting for him. And then Soderbergh has the nerve to put him in the trunk of a car with a FBI agent Karen Cisco (Jennifer Lopez) and talk about Faye Dunaway while we wonder if she’s going to fall for him or pull her gun on him. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Out Of Sight keeps the great balance between suspense and humor throughout the rest of the film, which revolves around Karen chasing Jack while he tries, impossibly, to win her over whenever his friend Buddy (Ving Rhames, who played Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction) isn’t doing that pesky thing of running away from the law and trying to secure a multi-million dollar heist. But the biggest hook is Soderbergh’s storytelling, which weaves Jack’s prison life in throughout as dialogue creates an entire backstory and crime world which, despite (really, because of) us never seeing it, gives every event believability and room for expansion, and the regularity of the cross-cutting leaves us in constant suspense as to whether we are missing a crucial piece of information. Indeed, we find out later what happened to Jack just before the film’s beginning and whether his bank robbery was based on anything at all, and the reveal comes at the exact moment that it’s needed. Each timeline, each reference to some unseen event, deepens the characters. Jack begins to deserve some of the sympathy we have been giving him on his charisma alone; Buddy’s faith increasingly becomes a north star where it was once, according to a minor character, a detriment; Glenn (Steve Zahn) maintains the elements of comic-relief but also becomes a symbol of cooperation and its advantages. Last, but not least, Don Cheadle instills Maurice “Mad Dog” “Snoopy” Miller with such madness and unrelenting anger that he becomes the sole villain and the romance between Jack and Karen gains both credibility and complexity. Jack may be a bank robber, but he’s not Maurice, and that counts for something.
The other major factor that gets us on board is the equal attention to both Karen and Jack. We hear a lot of Jack’s backstory, but we also have a few scenes that show a loving but possibly slightly strained relationship between Karen and her father. For some reason we can’t quite put our finger on, Karen’s dad doesn’t seem fond of her boyfriend. Most, if not all, of the familial relations remain unanswered, but the impressions they create stay with us and color a confused but dedicated FBI agent. Likewise, Jack’s regular good deeds—he always manages to fight the bullies off of the people who do no wrong—show that his adolescent stage with his bank-robbing uncle may be the only real vice on an otherwise good man. It’s a story full of intricate, well-timed twists and reveals that make it a character film as much as a heist film.
It’s when the stakes are the highest that Out Of Sight is at its best, though. There are not as many gunshots as one would expect, but when they come, it’s after such intense deliberation that they feel like a release. The climax in particular is repeatedly built up as one in which characters are sure to double-cross one another, where allegiances are constantly in flux and game-changing conversations are occurring just a few rooms away from other characters that need the information. All of the resulting tension is transferred, once again through cross-cutting, directly from the house to us. The characters are strangely at ease, making it even tenser for us viewers not accustomed to armed robberies, but when things finally hit the fan, the payoff is completely worth it. The only issue is that Soderbergh holds back and delivers too ironic and in-jokey an ending when he should have gone straight for the heart just a moment earlier.