The Hustlers hype is real. Since the first screenings, there’s been nothing but praise for the film and its stars, most specifically Jennifer Lopez. The 50-year-old actress and singer is garnering Oscars buzz for her portrayal of stripper mentor and entrepreneur Ramona, with many critics repeating the same sentiment: Hustlers marks Lopez’s best performance since 1998’s Out of Sight. It’s true, which makes this the perfect time to remember how great Out of Sight and its leading lady are.
Let’s first set the scene for when this movie came out, because it was a very different time for those involved. Today, a J. Lo and George Clooney pairing would be an expensive and exciting proposition, but in 1998 Clooney was still on ER and had yet to prove himself as a movie star. (He was also coming off the disastrous Batman & Robin.) Lopez, meanwhile, was best known for her recent turn in Selena and was still a year away from her first album. And director Steven Soderbergh (Clooney’s future Ocean’s trilogy collaborator), who is now one of Hollywood’s most innovative and prolific auteurs, was stepping into his biggest project almost 10 years after becoming an indie darling with Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
We almost didn’t even get the Lopez and Clooney pairing, with the more established Sandra Bullock looking like the pick to play Karen Sisco until Soderbergh decided Bullock and Clooney had great chemistry but “for the wrong movie.” Rounding out the cast were Ving Rhames on an epic run (Pulp Fiction, Mission: Impossible, Con Air), Steve Zahn in peak Steve Zahn form, post-Boogie Nights Don Cheadle, bald Albert Brooks, lovable Dennis Farina, Viola Davis in only her second film, Michael Keaton reprising his role from Jackie Brown, and Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo. In retrospect, that is the definition of stacked.
For those who haven’t seen Out of Sight — weird choice if you haven’t — let’s quickly set up the plot: Clooney stars as Jack Foley, a career bank robber who takes U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Lopez) hostage during his escape from a Florida prison. Thanks to the idiocy of Glenn (Zahn), Karen gets free, but both she and Jack have been intrigued by their time together, leading to a sexy game of cat and mouse as Jack and a group of his former fellow inmates chase down $5 million worth of diamonds in Detroit.
As good as Scott Frank’s script (adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name) and Soderbergh’s directing are, the plot is secondary to the dynamic between Foley and Sisco and the performances of the two stars. From the moment they first meet and are locked in a trunk together, the attraction between the characters is immediate. There are so many choices in the scene that show why Soderbergh was destined for greatness, from the perfect red lighting to the framing of Karen’s face — visible to the audience but not to Foley — as sparks begin to fly. And don’t get me started on Lopez’s smile. Rewatching this movie ahead of this article, multiple times I just wrote down “Her smile.” I’d rob a few banks for that smile.
And while Lopez can currently be seen in a movie about strippers, Out of Sight is still the sexiest movie she’s ever been in (a Dan Marino jersey has never looked better). Among the extremely sensual interactions are Foley with his hand softly on Karen’s hip in the trunk, a dream sequence of her fully clothed getting into a bath with him, and the famous “What If?” scene: As Karen sits alone at her hotel bar in snowy Detroit, a group of ad guys unsuccessfully shoot their shot, only for Foley to show up. After they-role play for a bit, Clooney delivers a monologue that shows why he’s the movie star we now know he is, with the action then intercutting between them in the bar and in her hotel room. After they sleep together, Karen has a brief freakout before he talks her down. She wakes up in the morning with a gun left behind on her pillow, the equivalent of roses for a woman like Karen Sisco.
But, let’s be clear, there’s much more to Lopez here than just sexiness and chemistry with Clooney. We know who Karen is in her first scene when her dad (Farina), whom she has a warm relationship with, gifts her the aforementioned gun. Like Foley, we’re immediately taken by Karen, who comes off as tough and innocent at the same time. Karen can take care of herself, which is on full display in her “tussle” with Kenneth (Isaiah Washington), but she’s also vulnerable, with Lopez perfectly tapping into all the elements of the complex character.
Part of what makes Karen and Foley’s dynamic so compelling — and really, what draws him to her — is that she’s more than his match. After all, Foley isn’t George Clooney. He’s definitely charismatic and a decorated thief, but he’s also got a bit of loser to him. After crossing paths with Karen, he tries to be the version of himself that could be on her level, and there are not many performers who have the charisma to make a Clooney character need to step up his game.
Foley never does quite get on her level, considering she ends up catching him, but just because she nabs him doesn’t mean their game is over. As he’s loaded into a prisoner transport back to Florida, Foley is surprised to see Karen riding shotgun. She returns his lighter, but her real gift is the other prisoner along for the ride: an expert prison breakout artist played by Samuel L. Jackson. (Let’s not worry about the issue of Keaton reprising his Jackie Brown character while his costar Jackson plays a new one.) When Foley realizes that Karen intentionally paired the two criminals, we once again see her face while he doesn’t. She smiles.