For a period of years after the release of Pulp Fiction, mainstream Hollywood developed an obsession with structure, toying with time and pacing in ways that were often interesting and occasionally grating. The late 1990s also saw the release of a variety of pretty excellent Elmore Leonard adaptations, including Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty and Quentin Tarantino’sJackie Brown. These two trends collide in Steven Soderbergh’s sleek, sexy Out of Sight, a film that serves as a standout Leonard adaptation and a fascinating riff on the nature of celebrity in a way that prefaces Soderbergh and George Clooney’s later team-up Ocean’s Eleven.
Career bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney) is a classic Leonard character, a shiftless charmer who doesn’t plan well so much as just react adeptly to his surroundings. When his prison break-out is interrupted by U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), Foley simply kidnaps her, beginning an attraction that will test both of them and their chosen identities. Foley, along with his right-hand man, the aptly named Buddy (Ving Rhames), and his less trustworthy associate Glenn (Steve Zahn), plans to travel to Michigan to rob former fellow inmate Ripley (Albert Brooks) of a stash of uncut diamonds. Along the way, they are opposed by Maurice (Don Cheadle), who also intends to steal the diamonds, and pursued by Karen, who is never quite sure whether she is chasing Foley to put him behind bars or in her bed.
The cast, which also includes Catherine Keener, Michael Keaton, Viola Davis, and Denis Farina, is a murderer’s row of great actors, and the film is smartly often content to just watch these people enjoy themselves. Out of Sight has a solid screwball energy and plenty of Leonard’s mordant wit, but the chemistry between Clooney and a never-better Lopez is the film’s linchpin, and its most interesting facet.
Out of Sight is arguably the moment George Clooney was catapulted from TV stardom to film stardom, and this happens at least in part because the movie turns on him being a movie star with all the charisma that entails. Without his effortless charm and good looks, the plot here is a non-starter, hinging as it does on Sisco falling for him. If his chemistry with Lopez was anything less than electric, their series of meet-cutes and an interlude in a Detroit hotel would play as repetitive instead of captivating. The way this film hinges on celebrity seems like the natural first step to Soderbergh and Clooney’s work on the Ocean’s films, and the way those films deal with celebrity is the logical extension of Clooney’s charming conniver here. Lopez falls for Clooney for the same reasons we as an audience do—he’s charming, he’s gorgeous, and he seems like he’s having fun with whatever it is he’s doing at that given moment.
Yet Elmore Leonard’s facility with character is apparent throughout. Few writers can turn a bit player into a fully formed character with a few paragraphs or a single monologue the way Leonard can, and Out of Sight is bursting with great minor characters who pop even in brief screen time. Part of this is because when you have people like Catherine Keener and Michael Keaton (who reprises his Jackie Brown role, though it goes uncredited for copyright reasons), they tend to bring things to life, but there’s a vibrancy on the page waiting to be found in each of these characters, a credit to Leonard’s brilliant character work.
Distance from the movie improves its reputation, in critical circles and in personal appreciation. This is a film with a crackling script (by Scott Frank), excellent direction, a litany of stellar performances, a fascinating structure that keeps it moving at a brisk pace even while leaving plenty of room for character moments and fun, funny interactions. It also represents many of the best things about movies in the 1990s. It has the sheen many mainstream movies of the period boasted, it plays with time in ways that are an absolute blast, and it has a wise and witty commentary on the problems (and advantages) of celebrity. With its minor character-building moments, hilarious quips, and blackly comic approach to the way all plans tend to go awry, Out of Sight is a quintessential Elmore Leonard adaptation, and an incredibly solid crime film. It’s the rare movie that manages to be breezy fun with actual weight, balancing those two deftly and becoming an adaptation that is faithful even as it has an independent streak the Leonard himself probably loved.