Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), a one-armed bartender in a small West Virginia town, is convinced his family is cursed. And he’s got plenty of reason to think so: He lost his arm to a roadside mine on his way home from his second tour in Iraq, and his brother Jimmy (Channing Tatum) can’t keep a job because of a lingering leg injury (or, as his apologetic boss puts it, a preexisting condition). Clyde looks back into the Logan family history and finds only misery, using the failings of his ancestors as an excuse for staying put in life. But where Clyde sees trouble, Jimmy sees opportunity—and a chance to reverse their misfortune.
Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s first film in four years (and his grand comeback from self-imposed retirement), is a jangly jaunt of a heist movie, following Jimmy’s elaborate plan to rob the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The film has the same breezy feeling as Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, being a caper movie where, even as things go wrong, there’s never a pressing sense of danger. But Logan Lucky works because the stakes are higher than they initially seem: Just as Danny Ocean was really striving to reclaim his lost love, Jimmy and Clyde Logan are looking to disprove decades of family misery. They’re seeking a cosmic realignment.
The robbery itself is low on pathos (there’s not even a villainous businessman, like Andy Garcia in Ocean’s Eleven, to cheer against), but Soderbergh smartly grounds it in emotion rather than greed, making a ridiculous scheme sound downright sensible. Jimmy is out of a job, yes, and needs a few bucks to hire a lawyer for his ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). But there’s no dying relative, no massive debt owed to the mob, no overriding reason for him to try and pull off such a daring heist. Rather, Jimmy is trying to prove the very gods of luck wrong, and it makes him that much more fun to root for.
Logan Lucky feels like a Coen brothers movie, down to its fairly cartoonish view of life in West Virginia. There are plenty of John Denver references made, trucker hats worn, and broad Southern accents. There’s also a delightful grab-bag of colorful supporting roles for the sparkling cast: Hilary Swank as a meticulous investigator, Riley Keough as the Logans’ capable sister Mellie, Dwight Yoakam as a preening prison warden. Best of all is Daniel Craig as the expert safecracker Joe Bang, whom the brothers decide to break out of prison for his special skills, then break back into prison once the heist is done.
Most of the lead performers are easygoing: Tatum’s Jimmy is a hop and a step removed from the actor’s work in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, a down-home boy possessed of a quiet brand of confidence. Driver’s Clyde is just slightly edgier, but Logan Lucky isn’t filled with the kind of violent hotheads you might expect from a heist story. Craig, whose Joe Bang sports a peroxide-blonde crew-cut that accentuates his ice-blue eyes, is the closest Logan Lucky comes to having a wild card. Even he’s more grounded than you’d assume, in one scene patiently explaining the science of an explosive bag of gummy bears he rigs up for the safe-cracking.
As with Ocean’s Eleven, the thrill of this film isn’t in whatever mortal danger the Logan brothers might be in, it’s the goofy joy of watching their plan come together, and witnessing Jimmy and Clyde side-step obstacles with grace. In all, it’s a gentle return from retirement for Soderbergh. Logan Lucky is like a cheerful sing-a-long of a movie, sweeping its audience along easily, even if some of the details quickly vanish from memory.
But, of course, Soderbergh was never really retired from moviemaking. It seems he was just looking for new ways to tell his stories and frustrated with a studio system that largely ignores these kind of actor-driven, mid-sized films that used to dominate Hollywood. Soderbergh made The Knick, a terrific exploration of the human ecosystem of a hospital in the early 20th century, on television. He served as the cinematographer and editor of Magic Mike XXL, the tone-poem sequel to his male-stripper movie that bathed its chiseled cast in moody color filters. Logan Lucky is yet another of Soderbergh’s wonderful ensemble pieces, one that should stand out in the cinematic doldrums of August.
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