Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Traffic (2000) and films as diverse as Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Kafka (1991), his two-part biopic Che (2008) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009), returns to features after a four year absence with a cool breeze of summertime sweetness called Logan Lucky. On the surface, this let's-rob-a-racetrack caper looks like a redneck spin on Ocean's 11, his starry (Clooney, Pitt, Damon) 2001 box-office hit. And in some ways it is. "I've lost interest in anything that smells important," the 54-year-old director recently told the New York Times.
Our advice? See Logan Lucky before you dismiss this restless talent as another convert to down-market pandering. Soderbergh is too inventive and intuitive a filmmaker to be content with a lazy heist film. Set in Trump country, a blue-collar South of lost jobs and broken dreams, it's a terrific, twisty, funny-as-hell crime flick about so-called hicks who decide that making America great again starts right at home.
Channing Tatum, Soderbergh's own Magic Mike, is a rogue charmer as Jimmy Logan, a West Virginia country boy who's just lost a construction gig due to a football injury that left him with a limp. His personal life is similarly hobbled by Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), the ex-wife who won custody of their daughter. Jimmy drowns his sorrows at a roadside bar run by his brother Clyde (Adam Driver, a deadpan delight), a war vet whose souvenir from Iraq is a prosthetic lower left arm. The siblings hatch a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina on Memorial Day weekend; having worked the track's underground, Jimmy knows that's where the money is funneled. And, hey, as a getaway driver they can use their speed-demon sis Mellie (Elvis' grandkid Riley Keough)!
For professional help, the Logans turn to an explosives expert aptly named Joe Bang – played by an off-the-chain hilarious Daniel Craig, complete with a holy-shit! blond buzzcut and hillbilly twang. (His screen credit reads: “And Introducing Daniel Craig.” Good one.) You'll be pleased to learn that Bang delivers what his name promises – of course, he has to be sprung from jail first and then snuck back in before the guards catch wise. Soderbergh plots and paces the underground robbery – fast cars roaring overhead – with the skill of, and we mean this as a compliment, a born thief. Cheers, too, for first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt for keeping the surprises coming (let's assume she's real); ditto Seth MacFarlane and Hilary Swank in supporting roles too good to spoil.
Haven't we seen this all before? Maybe. But Soderbergh takes his time with each of these two-bit crooks, so we get to know them as people instead of white-trash stereotypes. It's not dawdling – it's an attention to character that makes all the difference. The late, great Robert Altman was known for such putative toss-offs (think California Split or The Long Goodbye) that play like a party yet still linger in the memory. Logan Lucky belongs in that pleasurable company. It's true that any hack can string together the elements of a heist film – suspense, humour, convoluted plot, trick ending. Soderbergh, however, knows how to make those babies dance.