Logan Lucky is the much-hyped return to filmmaking for director/writer/editor/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh, who retired from making movies in 2013 after finishing Behind the Candelabra. It was generally assumed that Soderbergh, a man who steeped himself in film history and worked in as many different genres as he could, would eventually get bored with sitting around the house and get back behind a camera instead. Sure enough, here we are four years later with Logan Lucky — not one of Soderbergh’s greatest efforts, but an amusing yarn with a frothy, gentle tone.
The movie has been described as a sort of redneck version of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven heist trilogy, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. Only instead of the smooth criminals led by ultra-cool George Clooney and Brad Pitt, we have the down-on-their-luck Logan siblings, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), along with sister Mellie (Riley Keough), whom most of the locals in their North Carolina town — along with the family members themselves — assume have a family curse because nothing ever seems to go their way.
And at first it seems like that’s the case: Clyde lost an arm in Iraq and uses a cheap plastic one at his bartending job, while Jimmy has just lost the job he had at the Charlotte Motor Speedway filling sinkholes under the racetrack. Jimmy was saving up money from that job to move closer to his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife (Katie Holmes), so he hatches a plan instead to rob the Speedway during a NASCAR race. He needs an explosives expert to make it all work, so he recruits incarcerated weirdo Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) — which then necessitates a second plan to get Joe out of the joint.
Watching how all these schemes come together in stumbling, on-the-fly fashion — remember, this isn’t Danny Ocean and his boys — is one of the major delights of Logan Lucky. Right from the start you know you’re in the hands of a pro, and Soderbergh unwraps each level of the twisty plot cleanly and fluidly even as it detours in various directions. He also creates an immediate and centered sense of place, whether it’s in the intimidating bowels of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the bar where Clyde works or the local fairgrounds. Soderbergh shoots the South like an old friend, not downplaying its more questionable aspects — like those beauty pageants for little girls — but not disrespecting it either.
The film’s other significant pleasure is the gallery of oddball characters that Soderbergh and elusive screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (who may or may not exist) have cooked up and served to their cast on a platter. Tatum is engaging and empathetic as usual, while Driver and Keough are winning as Jimmy’s shrewder-than-you-think siblings. But best of all is Craig, almost unrecognizable and about a million miles away from James Bond, deploying a weird, exaggerated drawl, a shock of bleached blonde hair and an unpredictable m.o. (his explosive contain gummi bears) to create one of the most uniquely bizarre personas you’ll see onscreen this year.
A few of these folks seem extraneous, such as Seth MacFarlane’s dissolute racing team owner and Hillary Swank’s wiry FBI agent (who could have walked in off the set of Twin Peaks), but they’re all for the most part immensely fun to watch. If anything, that’s the one problem Logan Lucky has: Soderbergh himself seems to like these people so much that he doesn’t want anything really troubling to get in their way. As a result, Logan Lucky is so laid-back that once it’s over, as pleasantly diverting as it is, it seems lightweight and disposable. The way things wrap up almost comes as a surprise — that’s it?
In the end, it’s an easy two hours at the movies, but let’s hope that it’s a simple stretching of the muscles for Soderbergh before he gets back into richer, more substantial fare. Unless, of course, he decides to dive right back into Logan Lucky 2 and keep his unretirement as uncomplicated as possible.
Logan Lucky opens in theaters on Friday (August 18).