“Entertainment” gets a bad rap these days, as if it’s the degraded version of something more highbrow — “art,” maybe. But if watching Logan Lucky is being entertained, then hook me up to the IV and let it drip.
The movie reprises some of the greatest hits of its director, Steven Soderbergh, who’s come off the bench after a four-year hiatus from feature filmmaking (a time he filled with plenty of other projects, including two seasons of the critically acclaimed Cinemax series The Knick). Like his Ocean’s trilogy, it’s a heist movie with a crackerjack ensemble cast. It stars, among many others, Soderbergh favorites Channing Tatum and Riley Keough. And beneath its surface beats the potent, timely pulse of the ever-present drive for money, and what it causes men and women to do.
But Logan Lucky is also something all its own. Based on a first-time script by the seemingly pseudonymous screenwriter “Rebecca Blunt” (rumor has it that she’s actually TV personality Jules Asner, who’s married to Soderbergh), it’s set in Boone County, West Virginia, among cash-strapped blue-collar types — miners, veterans, petty thieves — who’ve figured more prominently in national political conversations of late. (The name of our current president is never uttered, but the specter is inescapable.)
And the film adds a cast of talent to Soderbergh’s cadre, including Adam Driver, Hilary Swank, Seth MacFarlane, and most gloriously Daniel Craig, bleach-blond and sporting a high-pitched hillbilly accent blissfully decoupled from his brooding James Bond.
But the best part of Logan Lucky is that from the get-go you know you’re in confident hands, and whatever’s about to happen, it’s going to be great.
Logan Lucky paints its distinctive characters with both broad and narrow strokes
How that filmmaking confidence is telegraphed to the audience is part of what makes it work. The very first scene has Jimmy Logan (Tatum) working on his pickup truck and explaining to his daughter why he loves John Denver’s music. The scene goes on longer than you might expect, and it doesn’t have a punchline. But it instantly gives viewers a strong sense of Jimmy: handy, competent, smart, and thoughtful. He seems like a caricature, with a thick accent — and after all, he’s working on a pickup truck, the border-crossing symbol of the working class — but the film quickly fills him out and sets a clear tone: even caricatures are based on real people.
Jimmy had plans in high school of being a pro athlete, but never made it; his daughter lives with his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) and her well-off husband (David Denman), who are thinking of moving out of the state. He’s been laid off from his construction job at the NASCAR speedway because of a limp, dating from his high school football days, that’s deemed a “preexisting condition” and a liability for the company. His life is grinding to a halt.
That’s all part of the Logan curse, though, which has afflicted everyone in Jimmy’s family, a fact everyone in town seems to know and talk about all the time. One living example is Jimmy’s brother Clyde (Driver), who returned from two tours of duty in Iraq to be a sad-eyed bartender in Boone County. The only family member who’s escaped the curse is their sister Mellie (Keough), a hairdresser and a smooth operator with few compunctions.
The brothers hatch a plan to get back at the fat cats (and also solve a few of their cash flow problems) by stealing the money flowing through the same NASCAR speedway. Logan Lucky has at times been billed as a “NASCAR heist,” but that’s a bit of a misnomer. All the action here happens in the prepositions: around, between, beneath, and inside the guts of the stadium on one of the biggest weekends of the year.
To make it work, they need to enlist the help of a demolition expert/criminal named Joe Bang (Craig), who’s currently serving time in the slammer. So on top of actually performing the heist, they’ll also need to break him out of jail, then back in without anyone noticing.
Logan Lucky doesn’t give away all its tricks at once
It’s a remarkably tall order, and unlike some heist movies, the film doesn’t show us the whole plan at once. The fun isn’t just in seeing all the pieces play out, but in finding out what the pieces are.
In Logan Lucky, those pieces include some excellent meta-jokes (including one about “Ocean’s 7-11”) and set pieces (a homemade explosive concocted with bleach, salt, plastic bags, and gummy bears provides a whole mess of hilarity). There’s a sidebar with an overserious FBI agent (Swank) that calls to mind the Coens’ Burn After Reading, and a bit at a beauty pageant for children that plays like a sweeter version of Little Miss Sunshine. The bigger heist plot even works like a more screwball Hell or High Water, calculated to take a little of the self-serious air out of that film’s tires.
By spooling out the plan little by little, the film keeps its audience in suspense about how all these pieces are coming together, then doubles back on itself to do it again. And if we’re surprised, all the better. Logan Lucky is aware that a good portion of its audience lacks the knack and know-how of its characters when it comes to things like hydraulics and mining and misdirection, and it relies on our surprise to concoct a lot of the fun. The traditional motif in movies like this — that horse sense and hands-on knowledge will get you much further in life than citified book knowledge — is almost entirely absent here. Instead, it’s the Logans against the construction companies, and the rest of the world be damned. That feels right, and keeps the film from slipping into the sloppy red-versus-blue clichés that are readily available these days.
But the best thing about Logan Lucky may simply be that it’s not afraid to be fun. Soderbergh is sometimes accused of treating his characters with a chilly remove, but here, he’s up close, loading them into a slingshot and then letting them fly free and bounce off one another with gloriously kooky results.
The film has a brain underneath its caper, which it shows off simply by not downplaying its characters’ very real problems, which are tied to bigger social conflicts. But it incorporates those conflicts into the plot, which means the film isn’t dragged down by them, even as it makes sure we don’t forget them. That quality alone would make Logan Lucky a welcome return to the big screen for Soderbergh. But the added bonus of fine-tuned entertainment value gives it the boost needed to accelerate the summer movie season across the finish line.
Logan Lucky opens in theaters on August 15.