Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough
It’s been a funny ol’ summer season, dotted with misfiring mid-budget hopefuls amid the usual glut of studio sequels, prequels and reboots. Even the successes (A Ghost Story for example) failed to capitalise on their critical acclaim. I started covering Twin Peaks not just because I love the show, but because the summer season offered little to tempt me to part with my money and keep updates regular.
Steven Soderbergh’s short-lived retirement comes to an end with Logan Lucky, the last and possibly best mid-budget movie of the season. It’s a good transition piece as we head toward the autumn schedule. Soderbergh has always been feted in the art house crowd and is as synonymous with the 90’s indie uprising scene as the likes of Gus Van Sant or Vincent Gallo. So he has the credentials. But, more so than his contemporaries, he’s always had an eye on drawing a commercial audience. His films are accessible to everyone, and he’s certainly not above catering to what people want, and a lot of the time that’s just a movie to make ’em smile. See the Oceans series or Magic Mike for evidence of Soderbergh’s willingness to play to the crowd.
Logan Lucky isn’t a grand artistic statement in the traditionally received sense. On the surface it may seem like an odd pick to lure Soderbergh back to the big screen. But if his draw to make films is to entertain primarily, then it makes perfect sense. This is a smart bet, playing in an arena he’s familiar with (the heist movie), with a script that ticks all of the right boxes. Maybe Soderbergh’s grand artistic statement is that going to the movies should be really, really fun?
The film follows two West Virginian brothers, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) who we meet down on their luck. Jimmy walks with a limp sustained in a football injury, and his failure to disclose it just lost him his construction job underneath a NASCAR circuit. Clyde lost his lower arm in Iraq and now tends bar at a joint called Duck Tape. Family is scattered and defined by divorce or separation. Jimmy has a plan though. It seems this former high-school quarterback has a knack for drawing up elaborate plans to rob places, and NASCAR draws in a hell of a lot of dough.
As the movie takes pains to point out, there are few past-times as proudly American as NASCAR, and so surely stealing from such an institution is downright unpatriotic? Logan Lucky spins that assumption. Jimmy and Clyde’s plan is as close to the heart of the American dream as it gets; get rich and do it with tenacity. It helps that the film rarely looks down on these men and women. American cinema, drawing largely from pools of creative talent in Los Angeles or New York, has often taken swipes at the south for cheap laughs. Rebecca Blunt’s script doesn’t do this. It does acknowledge cultural values in the south, and it’s happy poking a little fun, but rarely with any malice. It acknowledges the value placed on country fares and beauty pageants by the people who maintain these traditions, who put their hearts into them. Logan Lucky isn’t a platform to debate their qualities, but it does respect their existence.
Institutions, however, are painted in a less friendly light. A key part of the Logan brothers’ plan involves breaking explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of prison for the job and then returning him before anyone notices. The prison itself is run by Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam). The brothers exploit their understanding that the system is corrupt; that the warden would rather cover-up an incident that goes against his stats than expose a failing in his work. It’s a system that Burns has inherited, but one he is content to perpetuate. While at the end of the movie, Logan Lucky takes great pleasure in letting the FBI scratch their heads at to what happened and how.
The heist itself is a beautiful thing, constructed like a Rube Goldberg device. It’s a too-perfect crime, and to buy into it Soderbergh asks his audience to forgive how convenient everything is. How, yes, lucky. With characters this appealing, however, it’s an easy ask. Logan Lucky is a puff piece and it buys an awful lot of goodwill in this regard. This comes from the charming performances from Tatum, Driver and especially Craig, who seems happy walking in shoes that don’t belong to 007 for a while. Imagine Drax from Guardians Of The Galaxy with high blood pressure and artificial salt and you’re half way there. Craig is hench.
NASCAR is protected thanks to how big an institution it is. It’s already made it, and a heist isn’t going to bring it down. A different rigged institution is there for them; the insurance companies. The people taking their money look out for one another, do one another favours. Soderbergh imprints a sense of camaraderie more sincerely than you’d find in the comparable Fast & Furious franchise (which gets a nod here). So their efforts take on a Robin Hood-like quality. That doesn’t stop the film from trying to have a little fun with the speedway institution and it’s the only area where the film falls flat; Seth McFarlane’s bolshy social media-savvy driver Max Chillblain is as clunky as his faux-British accent, and the movie’s only true embarrassment.
But this really is the exception to the rule. Logan Lucky dispels critical thinking in the main by being so damned enjoyable. Soderbergh doesn’t showboat, but his film is colourful, good-looking, superbly paced; everything you could ideally want from a movie at this time in the year. It’s great to have him back and it’s great to be treated to a breezy fun caper movie that isn’t beholden to a larger franchise, even if the last reel here tilts heavily toward sequel planning. Hell. Bring it on. This crew, like their director, should run and run.