Now, armed with a fine script (adapted by Scott Frank from the Elmore Leonard novel), and paired with a canny director, he looks amused and at ease: it's the unmistakable bearing of a proper movie star. He plays Jack Foley, a bank robber whose tally of over 200 heists is an FBI record; sadly, he's also spent too many years of his life in prison. At the start of Out of Sight, we see Jack in action, walking calmly into a bank and, without the aid of a gun, persuading a cashier to hand over an envelope full of used bills. "Is this your first time being robbed?" he asks her with the casual politeness of a guest at a cocktail party. That's pretty cool, you think, as Jack gets in his car - which won't start. That's not very cool at all and next thing Jack is wheezing through a basketball game in the yard of a Florida penitentiary.
The plot starts ticking when Jack breaks out of prison, his friend Buddy (the great Ving Rhames) ready on the other side of the fence to whisk him away. Also close by is Federal Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), who tries to foil the escape but instead is bundled into the trunk of the getaway car, where Jack decides to hide with her. Cue one of the slinkiest introduction scenes in recent cinema: Jack and Karen, lying like spoons in the darkness, almost instantly click with each other, swapping chat about life and movies: Bonnie and Clyde; Network; Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. They talk of how things might have been if they'd met in different circumstances. Karen eventually escapes, but you just know that Jack is going to risk his neck to get to her again, and who can blame him?
The faltering sexiness of strangers trying to size each other up recalls a little of Soderbergh's high-profile debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). That film now looks a little sophomoric next to the swaggering confidence of Out of Sight, but it did give an early indication of what a smart director of actors Soderbergh is. He has persuaded both Clooney and the alarmingly beautiful Jennifer Lopez to think beyond their fabulous looks; there is only one love scene in the whole movie, yet the molten glances between the pair, and the sense of velvety closeness, are far sexier than any bedroom grappling. Not willing to let romance monopolise the proceedings, Soderbergh has surrounded them with an amazing cast: Don Cheadle as a vicious hoodlum; Steve Zahn as a spaced-out, petty crook; Catherine Keener as Jack's ex-wife; Michael Keaton, reprising his role as an unreliable FBI agent from Tarantino's Jackie Brown; and, almost unrecognisable with bald pate, Albert Brooks as an insider dealer with $5m in uncut diamonds stashed away in a Detroit mansion.
As Jack closes in on this booty, and Karen closes in on Jack, the plot becomes a delicate duel of wits between Fed and felon. There is no mistaking the toughness of either of them. Jack, on the evidence of flashbacks to his jailbird days, can look after himself; Karen has had to learn different tricks as a woman, rebuffing the bar-room overtures of a wheedling ad man with icy pleasantness, and using her night-stick on a more aggressive suitor. Soderbergh doesn't give his characters a lot of back story; there aren't any of the usual boring "demons" driving Karen and Jack towards their fate. He prefers to show his characters thinking and talking, and trusts the audience to make up their own minds as to whether they're on the level. No film has better served Leonard's laconic dialogue, and that includes Jackie Brown and Get Shorty. Apparently, the only advice Leonard gave screenwriter Scott Frank was to "just have fun". Anyone who knows what's good for them should follow suit.
In an uncredited cameo at the end of Out of Sight, Samuel L Jackson plays a con who describes jailbreak as "an exodus from an undesirable place". In The Negotiator, Jackson finds himself in an equally undesirable place: the 20th floor of Chicago Police HQ where, as a decorated cop named Danny Roman, he is holding hostages at gun point. Roman has been driven to this desperate pass after being framed for the murder of his partner, and related charges of pension fund embezzlement: and he's not leaving until he finds out who set him up. Needing an ally, Roman cannily demands a cop from outside the bureau to handle the crisis - enter Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), a cool, softly-spoken hostage negotiator who twigs that Roman may be more sinned against than sinning.
The Negotiator doesn't stretch the Hollywood thriller much beyond its big, loud, self-important traditions. Jackson shouts and sweats a lot, Spacey holds back his alligator smirk, while the rest of the cast - David Morse, John Spencer, Ron Rifkin, and the late and much-lamented JT Walsh - try for the perfect poker face while the audience sets about playing spot-the-rat. We learn a little about the etiquette of "hostage situations", that "Gimme status!" is a new way of saying "Please tell me what's happening", and that Shane might be dead in his saddle as he rides into the distance in Shane. The relevance of this last point to the plot is obscure, but at least it gives you something to ponder while waiting for the villain to be unmasked, and Jackson to prove his righteousness.
This week's other releases are reviewed on page 12