Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the Cineplex isn’t exactly a triumph, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining trifle. Filled with colorful characters and playful plot twists, the new hillbilly heist yarn, Logan Lucky (or as one character in the film suggests, “Ocean’s 7-11”), proves that Soderbergh still loves a good con game. Though you never shake the feeling that things should be a lot funnier, the sublime brilliance of Daniel Craig and Adam Driver will keep you smiling the entire time.
Logan Lucky is a loving ode to country bumpkins and the get-rich-quick schemes that fuel their imaginations. In this case, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a hard working West Virginia boy who loves his pickup truck and John Denver, has a foolproof plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the biggest NASCAR race of the year. As if to test the concept of ‘foolproof’, Jimmy populates his crew with an assortment of goofballs and local yocals.
His younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver) comes along for the ride, despite his steadfast belief that the Logan family name is cursed. How else to explain the loss of his arm while serving in Iraq (Clyde’s prosthetic arm provides the film’s best visual gags), or the catastrophic knee injury that denied Jimmy his shot as an NFL quarterback? The only sibling unaffected by the curse is their foxy sister Mellie (Riley Keough), whose biggest physical challenge is fitting into an assortment of gravity-defying mini skirts.
Soderbergh’s dedication to realism makes Logan Lucky feel like a true story, even though it’s a complete fabrication. Still, one feels that these characters existed well before the cameras started rolling, and they’ll be here long after the hoopla has ended. This is a podunk town rich with shared history; where even a random socialite at the hair salon knows Jimmy’s irrational fear of technology (“Are you one of them Unabomber types?”) and everyone can share a drink at the only bar in town (inexplicably named ‘Duck Tape’).
Logan Lucky leans on many of the same structural flourishes that made Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake such a cotton candy delight. A slick montage takes us through the labyrinthine Motor Speedway, as Jimmy’s narration explains the elaborate dumbwaiter system that delivers cash from the concession stands to an impenetrable central vault. With nearly 100,000 spectators buying $10 beers, the vault protects a mound of cash big enough to bury Jabba the Hutt.
Where Soderbergh deviates from his winning formula, perhaps to the film’s detriment, is by dabbling in absurdism. To penetrate the impenetrable vault, Jimmy must enlist the expertise of an incarcerated mastermind named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig chewing plenty of scenery). Bang epitomizes the strength and weakness of Logan Lucky, as he oscillates between buffoonery and competence, depending on what the script requires. It seems highly unlikely, for instance, that this doofus could meticulously diagram the chemical reaction needed to blow the vault, but his half-assed chemistry lesson makes for an inspired gag, nonetheless.
Daniel Craig as Joe Bang
The resulting mishmash of absurdism and realism is a somewhat frustrating hybrid that can’t decide how deeply into Coen Brothers territory it wishes to delve. It’s easy to imagine these characters inhabiting the same off-kilter world of Raising Arizona, but their grounded folksiness prevents them from really cutting loose. Driver’s Clyde, with his awkwardly halting twang, is an obvious Coen crossover, while an inspired riff on George R. R. Martin’s inability to finish Game of Thrones novels in a timely fashion feels like a debate that Walter and The Dude might indulge between frames at the bowling alley.
If Rebecca Blunt’s restrained script prevents Logan Lucky from getting too uproarious, it also gives the cast plenty of chances to shine. Unlike 2016’s ghastly hillbilly heist clunker, Masterminds, where you could literally feel the desperation of a talented comedic cast trying to be funny, the comedy here is organic and effortless. Quirky details, like Joe Bang carrying a salt shaker in his sock to spritz hardboiled eggs from the vending machine, provide fodder for gags that can be revisited again and again. Clyde and Jimmy’s code word for trouble, ‘cauliflower’, might seem like a non sequitur, but their odd pronunciation (which evokes images of some weird canine and floral breeding experiment) and sincere urgency never fails to draw a grin.
Craig and Driver, in particular, are having a blast. Both seem oddly out of place for this genre, which, ironically, makes them the perfect casting choices for such idiosyncratic characters. Tatum is reliable, if unspectacular as the straight man, while Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are terrific as Joe Bang’s younger, less capable brothers. The only sour note in the cast is Seth MacFarlane as a loutish NASCAR team sponsor. The harder MacFarlane tries to do a Jemaine Clement imitation the more you wish he was actually Jemaine Clement.
Logan Lucky is a playful diversion that functions as the perfect complement to Hollywood summer spectacles. Soderbergh, for all of his perplexing career twists, remains a talented filmmaker with an instinctive gift for pacing and style. Cinephiles can rejoice that his self-imposed retirement seems to be over, even if he doesn’t push himself too hard in this modest return.