After several long years, director Steven Soderbergh is finally back from his filmmaking hiatus. Wait, that’s not quite right: since Side Effects, he has also directed two seasons of the Cinemax series The Knick, in addition to the HBO original film Behind the Candelabra (he also served as the cinematographer on Magic Mike 2). Either way, Logan Lucky represents a return to form: this is Soderbergh’s first heist film since Ocean’s 13, with the same sense of humor and understated intelligence. This time, however, the characters could not be more different. Instead of smooth-talking city slickers in tailored suits, our West Virginia heroes are proud country boys/girls. Soderbergh has no problem with this shift – Logan Lucky includes an effortless populist streak – although the shaggy dog conclusion nearly undermines the whole thing.
Before the heist gets underway, Rebecca Blunt’s script spends considerable time with the Logan siblings. In full on charming hunk mode, Channing Tatum plays Jimmy. He just got fired from his construction job, and he nurses his wounds where his brother Clyde (a droll, understated Adam Driver) tends bar. An Iraq veteran, Clyde lost his arm overseas, making the most of his disability with natural physical grace. Jimmy’s newfound unemployed status gives him an idea: he has some inside information about the NASCAR track where he worked, and he’s fixin’ to rob their cash-carrying pneumatic tube system. They enlist Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) for demolition work, plus his two knucklehead younger brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson). The biggest complication is Joe’s incarceration, but Jimmy says not to worry: he has plan to break Joe out of prison, perform the heist, and break him back in before the day is over.
There is a minor controversy over who, exactly, wrote Logan Lucky. Journalists think Rebecca Blunt may not exist, while Soderbergh insists she is real (my theory is that he took an existing script and punched it up). Either way, Blunt’s script has an easygoing style, allowing her and Soderbergh to spend time with several secondary characters. Some are more valuable than others: relative newcomer Farrah Mackenzie nearly steals the show as Jimmy’s precocious daughter, while Seth Macfarlane is utterly superfluous as a NASCAR financier with an ego problem. This a horizontally-integrated style of storytelling, so part of the fun is guessing where the clues end and the red herrings begin. Unsurprisingly, the most satisfying elements involve Daniel Craig as Joe Bang. In recent roles, Craig has glowered through his performances. Nervy and weird, his character here has a bizarre accent and a hilariously homegrown approach to demolition science.
Soderbergh is an invaluable director, and not just because of his casting genius. He eschews a lot of storytelling convention, using camera placement and editing to convey a lot of information in an economical way. His camera pivots, twirls, and avoids familiar angles altogether. There is a late scene where Jimmy and Clyde’s sister Mellie (Riley Keough) walks to the trunk of her car, and he handles it with such elegance that it tells us a lot about both Mellie and the big plan. There are also some delightful comic vignettes, with one so lovingly arranged that it could serve as a standalone comedy sketch. One of Jimmy and Clyde’s distractions is a prison riot, and one of the convicts’ demands is that they have access to the still-unpublished George RR Martin novel The Winds of Winter. The scene plays out deliberately, culminating with so much frustration that it may unintentionally cause Martin to abandon his next book altogether.
Logan Lucky spends the lion’s share of its runtime of its heist, using it as an opportunity for sight gags and character development. After it ends, however, there is a protracted coda where an FBI Agent (Hilary Swank) tries to solve the whole thing. These scenes last at least ten minutes too long, delaying the inevitable twist where we learn the lynchpin of Jimmy’s plan, to the point where its arrival is like an afterthought. This is a minor quibble, however, since Swank’s performance almost makes up for it and Soderbergh has earned ample goodwill. This not a return to form, since Soderbergh never lost his considerable talents. Instead, Logan Lucky maintains its affable charm. When you catch this film on basic cable in a couple years, you’ll probably watch it to the end, even if it means putting up with the slower bits.