In Steven Soderbergh’s hillbilly heist comedy Logan Lucky, the West Virginia prison where vault specialist Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) resides is pristine and peaceful. This is a high-security facility in a seemingly alternate world, a jail without racial tensions where the prisoners feast on edible food. While only a small part of this caper takes place in the prison, this setting is indicative of a tone Soderbergh excels at in his studio comedies; on the surface, these stories are unencumbered by deeper sociopolitical struggles. In a word: Fun!
In the first scenes, Soderbergh paints Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a football star turned down-on-his-luck dad, as a quintessential good ol’ boy who gets fired from his excavation job at a NASCAR track because of his limp. It might have been easy for a filmmaker to exploit that setup for sympathy, showing us how unbearably difficult life is for this blue-collar guy in poverty-stricken America. Instead, Soderbergh’s hero immediately takes action and hatches a 10-step plan for breaking into the track’s underground cash vault. This plan also is scrawled on a note that Jimmy’s bro and trailer roommate Clyde (Adam Driver) discovers — “I see you’ve got a robbery to-do list on the refrigerator.”
From there, the plot gets twisty, as the bros hire Joe and his bros — dolts Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) Bang — to break out Joe and cleverly take the track for all its cash. The film’s worth a watch just to figure out how they’re going to crack all that security, and also for the fascinating trivia tidbits about the raceway. (People apparently live in condos built above the stands!) This is a thorough study of a world little known to city slickers. There’s a lot to explain here, with regard to the setting and the mechanics of the caper, but Soderbergh rarely gets bogged down in details and only spells out what he has to. It’s a relief to watch a commercial movie from a director who trusts you to figure out plot points along the way.
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First-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be Jules Asner, Soderbergh’s wife) never complicates things past a Robin Hood framing — these folks are stealing from the rich to give to the poor, nothing more. There are clear-cut winners, and the only villain is an Instagram-obsessed energy-drink mogul played by Seth MacFarlane, who’s there to exhibit stupidity and pomposity, the cosmopolitan heel to the salt-of-the-earth protagonists. If Asner really did write this script, I can only imagine she and Soderbergh stayed up late laughing in bed at the phrase “Ocean’s 7-11,” which gets uttered by a news reporter describing the backcountry thieves. If Soderbergh’s first Ocean’s had a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, this down-home version matches up in every way.
Watching Craig shed his Bond suaveness to become a fast-talking, hootin’ and hollerin’ jailbird is a joy. I hope he’ll soon be unshackled from solemn action roles and find a second life in comedies. Even the way he savors hardboiled eggs, Joe’s fave vending-machine food, is funny. Tatum, so often cast as the Magic Mike picture of ultimate confidence, transforms into a schlubby dad — his posture is slumped and a gut bulges in his T-shirt. His camaraderie with Driver is unexpectedly thoughtful and realistic. When Joe tells the bros that it must be true what people say, that the Logans are “slow in the head,” Jimmy and Clyde turn to one another with twin puppy-dog eyes — “People say that?”
Also welcome: Driver’s return to comedy. One of the film’s darkest running jokes is that, after losing his hand and forearm in Iraq, Clyde sheaths his stump with an exaggeratedly large plastic hand. At one point, he gets himself arrested, and the goofy guards look quizzically at the hand and the now-useless cuffs they’re supposed to put on him, while Driver meets them with a dead-eyed stare. I don’t care how many dramas he does, Driver’s angular face and protruding ears are built for laughs.
Since Logan excels in plotting and character, the few times Soderbergh falters become more evident. An ill-placed love story between Jimmy and a community medic named Sylvia (Katherine Waterston) materializes from thin air. Sylvia walks past Jimmy at a gas station, notices the bruise and cuts on his face from a fight, invites him into her mobile clinic for a tetanus shot and a quick flirt session. Jimmy doesn’t need a love interest, and Sylvia’s on screen for barely five minutes. Yet even as this extraneous character and storyline made me raise an eyebrow and ask “why?” the moment Waterston cracked a joke, I laughed out loud. Sometimes, the only reason for doing anything is to have a little fun, and Soderbergh seems to be having a lot of it.