by Michael Henley
Logan Lucky, the new film from director Steven Soderbergh, comes billed as a lightweight southern heist caper, and it is that, and a very funny one, too: puckish and sardonic and playful. But the movie’s secret weapon, heavens to Betsy, is its deep and unshakable affection for its own characters. Too often, movies like this would be delivered with a sneer of condescension for its daffy, cartoonish rogues. Would too readily sketch them as stupid. Logan Lucky, however, loves its people, wants us to love them, kids them occasionally via that love, and most of all wants to challenge us about them…but gently, very gently. While it has dim bulbs in its cast, more than once it takes a special joy out of toying with our notions of just how smart some of them are. They surprise us, delightfully. People can do that.
That this is the work of Soderbergh (Traffic, Out of Sight, Magic Mike and many others), one of the more humanistic and nimble of modern filmmakers, is no surprise. Logan Lucky marks Soderbergh’s return–after four years–to the big screen, but also to the heist genre that he contributed to with the Ocean’s Eleven movies (at one point a character on TV helpfully dubs the criminals here as “Ocean’s 7/11,” which is clearly the kind of meta wink you’d expect from a director who once had Julia Roberts play two different roles, one of them being herself). Soderbergh certainly hasn’t been quiet, mind you: in the interim years he directed The Knick for TV and HBO movies like Beyond the Candelabra, and he also produces like crazy (this is a good place to plug the terrific Starz series The Girlfriend Experience, an adaptation that improved on his source movie in every single way).
So why did he come back to make this? Well, aside from the fact that he can make whatever he damn well pleases, what he adds here to the Oceans formula is a big heart and a real sense of place: its Virginia locations and characters pop with an unassuming authenticity, one clearly informed by the humble origins of both star Channing Tatum (born in Alabama) and Soderbergh himself (Georgia). And also maybe they speak to an authenticity coming from screenwriter Rebecca Blunt, who is either (a) a mysterious real person, (b) a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife, Jules Asner, or (c) a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself. You never know with Soderbergh, who, like he often does, operates here as his own DP (aka “Peter Andrews”) and his own editor (aka “Mary Ann Bernard”).
But, as a character says about John Denver in the opening scene, “I like the song because I like the song. But I guess I also like it because there’s a story behind it.” That’s Channing Tatum, in another performance that reminds you what a shrewd and smart actor he is, playing Jimmy Logan, a big-hearted lunk who is fired from his job on a construction crew due to flaring up of an old football injury, a telltale limp. His prospects are weak and his future with his daughter (who he adores) is uncertain when he learns his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is moving to West Virginia so that her new husband can open a chain of car dealerships. Jimmy has a brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq war veteran who lost his left arm and now makes use of a plastic one as he tends bar and dodges petty insults at a local watering hole. (“Between his limp and your arm, you two make up a whole person,” guffaws a drunk one night). There’s tales, in these parts, of a Logan family curse, although maybe it just affects the men: certainly the boys’ hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) is too tough and flinty to believe in such things.
But, yes, Jimmy is hurting, badly and that’s when he gets the idea to boost millions from the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a venue he knows the guts of thanks to his recent employment. Clyde, who is slow but adorably sweet, dutifully helpls, as does Mellie, but they need assistance: first from a pair of dim bulb hicks named Sam and Fish (Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid) whose certifications speak for themselves (“I know all the Twitters. All of ‘em.”) And also they need the help of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a blonde-haired goofball and explosives expert who is, inconveniently, still behind bars at a federal penitentiary (or, as he helpfully explains: “I. Am. In. Car. Cer. A. Ted.”) This means their heist has to be phase two of a jailbreak, which has to ultimately end with Joe Bang back in prison with nary a suspicion, with airtight alibis also for the whole crew. Easy peasy.
Craig’s entrance is when the movie, already puttering along nicely, escalates into delirious joy. Craig is clearly having oodles of fun (I love the decidedly un-Bond-like way he comes onto Keough’s character, from the backseat of a getaway car, by squealing “I’m going to get nekkid! No peakin’!” as he switches costumes). He’s also an oaf, but preternaturally savvy at certain things, and one of the movie’s biggest laughs (involving a tricky pneumatic tube) is such a precise conflation of his peculiar knowhow and his good-spirited clumsiness. He’s a brighter bulb than the two dummies, who are Joe Bang’s brothers, who display their fortitude, if not their intelligence, during a scene where they discuss plans via a parking lot payphone. (Jimmy: “Are you on a secure landline?” (perfectly timed beat) Sam: “Um, we’re outside the Lowe’s?”)
The movie is aggressively funny. This includes Joe Bang’s tutelage of the two brothers of the finer arts of chemistry, the intricacies of the prison break (which eventually evolves into a subplot involving, among other things, an intense argument about the output of a deceptively prolific contemporary writer), the sheer cleverness of the heist, and, most importantly, the way the characters bounce off of each other. That includes the hidden depths of Jimmy (the script enjoys constantly stymying our calculations of how clever he is), the thoughtful nods of Clyde (who is low on smarts but has a knack for over delivering on quiet wisdom), the bickering of the two tech experts, and even the no-nonsense gum-snapping of Keough’s Mellie, who, when pressed, can describe the benefits of a V8 engine better than anyone (between this and her excellent turn on the Girlfriend Experience, Keoguh deserves to be a big, big star). And then there’s a prideful prison warden (played with maximum flopsweat by Dwight Yoakam). And then, of course, as is per usual, there is the sheer pleasure of watching the strands come together, through various twists and turns (the old heist/con staple, of course, being the scene that is supposed to be read one way at first and then a second way in retrospect).
But what puts Logan Lucky over the top, though, is its carefully-guarded release of emotion, which occurs strongest during a beauty pageant talent show for Jimmy’s daughter (Farrah Mackenzie). The two love each other; we see this in that lovely opening scene where she helps him repair his truck, knowing the difference between a flathead and a Phillips and a 5/8 wrench and quizzing her daddy on John Denver. What happens between them, in the closing moments of Logan Lucky, is really touching, though I won’t spoil it. What I will say is it’s matched by a closing montage of showing everyone getting what’s coming to them, and while this may be a movie that never lets you forget the structure of its making, it uses that to provide the satisfaction of watching karmic justice, right down to the camera movements of the last scene.
There are some bits that don’t work. Two of them are characters that could have entirely hit the cutting room floor: an asshole racer played by Seth MacFarlane (over the top and irritating) and an FBI agent played by Hilary Swank (mannered and too peculiar to be introduced as late as she is). There are other subplots that don’t amount to much, including Jimmy’s romance with a pretty doctor (Katherine Waterston) and the two-scene story of a goodhearted racecar driver (Sebastian Stan). Soderbergh has assembled a big cast here, and damned if he’s not going to use them all, even when they don’t quite fit.
But these speed bumps are, arguably, minor. Logan Lucky is a well-crafted piece of salty popcorn entertainment–an original and sweet tonic after a long summer of franchises and explosions. But it’s more than that. It’s also a level-headed and pretension-free look at folks who are frequently forgotten or mocked at the movies. It celebrates them, and makes them funny, but in a good-natured, uncynical way. Not to make any wild predictions, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, in about 10 years or so, that Logan Lucky has settled into the hills of Virginia as a quotable, Lebowski-level cult classic.