The release of ‘Logan Lucky’ marks a return from self-imposed cinematic retirement for director Steven Soderbergh. You’d think that might mean the Oscar-winning filmmaker has an extra important and ambitious project that forced him back into the art form. Nope. The guy just wanted to have fun and has delivered one of his most endearingly goofy larks to date.
There’s a clever in-joke near the end of ‘Logan Lucky’ that dubs the Red State heist tale “Ocean’s 7-11.” That really sums up what Soderbergh was going for with his big screen comeback. The film has the self-conscious wit, clever characterization, sparking dialogue, and careful heist plotting that made his ‘Ocean’s’ blockbusters so popular, just with a downmarket southern setting.
Channing Tatum stars as Jimmy Logan. He’s a man with a lifetime of bad breaks, a high school football star who lost his career to injury and then bumbled from one bad job to the next with a broken marriage (and admittedly adorable child) tossed in for good measure. His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) had it just as bad, losing an arm in Iraq and ranting about a Logan family curse to anyone who will listen. Only their sister (played by the delightful Riley Keough) seems to have any luck. After losing his latest job fixing the underground infrastructure of a NASCAR track, Jimmy decides to plan a heist to rob the place during a big race. He comes up with a list of rules, a meticulous plan, a gang of eccentric collaborators (including a perfectly cast-against-type Daniel Craig), and sets about getting down to business – you know, like how all heist movies work, but with far more charm than most.
From the opening scenes, it’s clear that Soderbergh is in this one to have a damn good time as a director and invite the audience along to join in the fun. The script is credited to newcomer Rebecca Blunt, but it’s already rumored that’s another one of Soderbergh’s pseudonyms to go alongside his fictionalized editing and cinematography credits. The screenplay feels like it came from the director, with gags coming out of the structure, composition, edits and action that are baked right into the script. It’s a masterful bit of filmmaking, rarely showing off yet always carefully in command. Soderbergh’s late career style of careful compositions and subtle movement suits this playful material as much as it does his chilly dramas. The movie is fleet and playful, rarely wasting a moment and weaving together a plot with clockwork precision that seems to unfold like a casual lark. ‘Logan Lucky’ is meticulously constructed fun, and if that doesn’t sound like pure Steven Soderbergh, I don’t know what does.
While the setting could easily have devolved into a series of condescending gags at the expense of the Red State characters, Soderbergh and his actors deliver their redneck heroes with warmth and respect. The comedy comes from eccentricity rather than mockery. Tatum plays a lovable lug with a heart of gold, because he’s Channing Tatum and that’s what he does. Adam Driver delivers a drawl funny on its own and a man who is always thinking even if his brain moves slowly. Daniel Craig is hysterical as a cartoonish Southern super-criminal who would seem ridiculous without the gently heightened reality of the movie. Riley Keough delivers a charming Southern firecracker, Katie Holmes does a bitchy ex routine with a certain grace, Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson serve up hysterical dumbbell brothers, and even Seth McFarlane delivers a goofball performance worth loving. Every actor fits perfectly into Soderbergh’s carefully wound heist comedy machine, given snappy almost Coen-esque dialogue to dig into and at least one scene to steal.
For what it’s trying to accomplish, ‘Logan Lucky’ gets absolutely everything right. The movie is hilarious, suspenseful, exciting, charming, and just gently moving enough to warrant an emotional investment. While Steven Soderbergh is capable of more ambitious or even important filmmaking, that doesn’t mean he can’t make the hell out of a late summer lark. These sorts of movies are as tricky to pull off as actual heists, with one miscast actor, stale joke, or failed twist enough to sink the whole carefully constructed plan. Thankfully, Soderbergh is too good to drop the ball, crafting this light entertainment with the patience and precision of a master. Everything snaps together and it’s an absolute joy to watch without ever stretching above the ambition of entertaining the hell out of audiences for two hours.
Hopefully, ‘Logan Lucky’ proves to be a surprise hit. This is the sort of filmmaker-driven entertainment that should have a place in the summer season. If audiences were kind enough to finally show up for Edgar Wright this year and make ‘Baby Driver’ a $100 million hit, then with luck they’ll give Soderbergh the same love and attention. He creatively financed the movie so that all of the profits go to the filmmakers and actors who worked for scale. If the experiment works, he has a new distribution and production model that avoids the traditional studio system altogether, and undoubtedly many more underfunded filmmakers would benefit from what he’s created. It sure would be nice to have Soderbergh back behind the camera regularly again. Whether he’s goofing off or trying to advance the art form, the director knows how to make damn fine movies. This is one of them. Show up and there will be more.