Retrospective: Out of Sight remains the sexiest of crime movies

In Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 crime-romance Out of Sight, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez flirt across opposite sides of the law. The film’s seductive power hasn’t dimmed one bit, says Luke Buckmaster.

Crime movies come in many varieties of cool—the gritty kind; the wild outré kind; the kind with shit-stirring cockney gangsters; the kind peppered with derivative conversations about pop culture and cheeseburgers. Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 gem Out of Sight is the kind of cool you see in perfume ads and commercials for expensive Italian suits. It’s very composed, very slick and sleek, and very sexy, powered by two seductively charming lead performances: from George Clooney as a silver-tongued bank robber and Jennifer Lopez as an FBI agent proficient with pump-action shotguns.

If “opposites attract” or “unlikely lovers” spring to mind, it becomes clear that this couple are similar people in some respects—at a most basic level career-focused and intimidatingly attractive. But perhaps doomed due to being on clashing sides of the law: the lovers version of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s cop and criminal frenemies in Heat.

Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, Out of Sight‘s plot flirtatiously touches on various action movie plot points—heists, chases, a bank robbery, a shootout, etcetera—but drifts around, as if in a non-committal relationship. Soderbergh downplays scenes that would otherwise be intense dramatic inflection points, taking the edge off, rounding the pointy bits.

The film doesn’t even care about the linear progression of time, jumping across the temporal continuum without obvious joins. Eventually it circles back to reveal events leading up to its first scene, in which Clooney’s Jack Foley exits an office building, looking terribly hot and flustered, grabbing at his tie and ripping it off as if it were a snake coiled around his neck. He collects himself, walks across the road, then calmly robs a bank without any weapons, using only the instrument of conversation—informing the teller that a man on the other side of the room is his partner and will do bad things if she doesn’t hand over the dosh.

It’s quite preposterous, but you don’t care, partly because Foley’s car won’t start outside and he’s arrested and jailed—punished for such audacity. The film doesn’t intensify in prison: Foley plays basketball, makes a phone call, chats to a guard, then breaks out of prison in another silly stretch of logic.

This time we don’t care because Foley soon ends up in the boot of a getaway car (driven by his accomplice, Ving Rhames’ Buddy) with Lopez’s Karen Sisco, who’s at the prison car park and gets wrapped up in his escape. This is the film’s centrepiece scene, set in said boot, which is bathed in red lighting that provides a soft glowing ambience as the leads meet and converse. Soderbergh directs this moment romantically, like a bedroom scene, with Lopez lying on her side in the foreground and Clooney behind her, almost in the spoon position, while he gabs nervously about this and that—talking for instance about how he and his ex-wife lacked a certain spark. The kind of spark that (although he doesn’t say this) he clearly has with J-Lo.

The body language between them indicates a kind of familiarity the characters don’t have, and a dallying energy totally unbefitting of the scenario. But it doesn’t matter: in this film tone is everything, and this moment is seductively low-key. Tune in at this point and you’d be forgiven for thinking the couple are in bed, making pillow talk, exchanging sweet nothings.

This great scene has a big impact on the rest of the film, which goes on to deliver exactly what the audience want: Foley and Sisco coming together as lovers. They go on a date and look into each other’s eyes as snow falls down outside. They reminisce on that scene in the boot (“remember how talkative you were in the trunk?” asks Sisco) as if it were, indeed, a date.

Even if Out of Sight peaks during this moment, it’s a soft sort of peak, allowing for many other enjoyable scenarios, delivered with a jazzy tempo, including a botched attempt to steal diamonds from a criminal’s mansion. Even in this moment the mood is calm, smooth, too cool for school. It’s the suavest and sexiest of crime movies.