Steven Soderbergh's first feature film in four years is a low-down, high-spirited redneck heist yarn that's got something to say about the current state of NASCAR (read: Trump) country.
Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” is a high-spirited, low-down blast. It’s a let’s-rob-the-racetrack heist comedy set in that all-American place that even rednecks would have no problem calling redneck country: the land of NASCAR and child beauty pageants, spangly long fingernails and roadside biker-bar brawls, and — these days being what they are — chronic unemployment and spiritual stagnation. (Hey, nothing’s perfect.) The script, by Rebecca Blunt (it’s her first, and it’s a beauty), exploits the Southern gift for turning something as basic as a series of freeway directions into a tall tale. And Soderbergh, directing his first feature in four years (his last one was the superb HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra”), plays, with an invisible wink, off the natural-born comedy of mile-wide drawls that veer from the charmingly folksy into a kind of good-ol’-boy theater (lying about your alibi, it turns out, is even more effective when you do it from behind the armor of a chicken-fried accent).
“Logan Lucky” turns out to be a sharply observant tall tale all its own, a movie that taps into the shifting dynamics of Trump country (though the T-word itself is never mentioned). After a prologue that features the twin fetishes of John Denver nostalgia and pickup-truck repair, the action gets set in motion when Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a beefy divorced dad who lives in a tin-walled shack in Boone County, W.Va., loses his latest hard-hat gig, all because someone from human resources spied him walking with a slight limp, which could signal a pre-existing condition, which could prove actionable. Actually, it’s just an old football injury, and yes, he should have mentioned it on his application form (though in that case he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job). Yet the timely corporate injustice of this here-today-gone-tomorrow layoff tells you all you need to know about the prospects for Jimmy’s future: There are none.
That’s why he feels utterly justified — and so does the audience — when he decides to go for broke by robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. That’s where he was driving a bulldozer underground to repair sinkholes when he made a startling observation: All the money that comes into the racing complex gets moved through an old-fashioned pneumatic tube transport system (PTT), a network of snake-like cylinders that wind their way underground and funnel the money into a steel bank vault. Because of the repair work, the vault’s seismic-sensor alarm system has been turned off. And those tubes? They’re the all-too-easy way in.
Soderbergh, of course, is the king of the contempo movie heist caper, and “Logan Lucky” is an obvious cousin to his “Ocean’s” films, though it’s hardly “Ocean’s Fourteen” in white-trash drag. The heist is diabolically clever, but only rarely does it feel movie clever. It has a homemade, gimcrack, screw-top quality that marks it as a pure product of the down-home Southern imagination, and the way that Soderbergh has directed the movie, rooting it in an authenticity of locale, manners, and economics, it could almost pass for a true-life crime drama, like the Lufthansa heist in “GoodFellas” (even though this one is all made up).
When directors become rich and famous, they often lose their ability to dramatize the lifestyles of the poor and ordinary. But Soderbergh, as a filmmaker, has never lost touch with the transcendent pulse of everyday experience, and in “Logan Lucky” his feel for cracker-barrel screw-ups has a mordant vivacity. Logan puts a team together to commit the heist, starting with his younger brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), a sad-sack bartender who lost his forearm during one of two tours of duty in Iraq. The two share a sense of living out “the Logan curse,” a community legend that basically boils down to the fact that they’re both ne’er-do-wells who’ve been on a downward slope since high school. Clyde, who wears the legend heavily, is a conspiracy nut who speaks with robotic gloom, and Driver makes him a sympathetic semi-crackpot who’s attached, in more ways than one, to his fake arm (it’s his best friend).
The movie fills in each of the Logans’ backstories in about a minute, and that’s all you need: Jimmy the fallen jock king who never made it to the pros (only to discover that the world of honest blue-collar labor had evaporated), and Clyde the little brother who envied Jimmy so much that he went to Iraq just to live up to him. At times, the two could be a scragglier version of the brothers in “Hell or High Water,” committing robbery to fight The System. Only in this case they can’t do it alone.
Their key accomplice is Joe Bang, an explosives expert played, with a savagely fast and funny spark, by Daniel Craig as a snaky hillbilly varmint in a platinum-blond buzzcut. Since Joe is serving a prison sentence, they have to break him out of the slammer and then back in with no one noticing, a plan that proves nearly as complicated as the heist itself. But it’s worth the effort, since only Joe — a hayseed chemistry wizard — would know how to build a bomb out of bleach tabs, fake salt, and Gummy Bears. In just about every heist film, we’re told what the plan is before it’s hatched, but in “Logan Lucky” we watch the robbery unfold without having any idea where it’s going, and that gives it a jerry-rigged quality that’s at once hilarious, suspenseful, and plausible (well, sort of).
There are other offbeat and engaging characters, like Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson as Joe Bang’s siblings, who complete the heist team (they’re even further down on the backwoods totem pole); Seth MacFarlane as a skin-crawlingly obnoxious British sports-car magnate; Katherine Waterston as the roving health-care professional who sees what a diamond in the rough Jimmy is; Dwight Yoakam (cast hilariously against type) as a prison warden who sweeps his petty scandals under the rug; Hilary Swank as an FBI agent who, in her strait-laced way, proves as doggedly eccentric as Marge Gunderson from “Fargo”; Katie Holmes as Jimmy’s scalding ex-wife; Farrah Mackenzie as his Rihanna-fixated daughter; and the magnetic Riley Keough as the Logans’ flaky but radiantly uncursed hairdresser sister. They’re all terrific company, and so is the movie, even when it takes a last-act twist that heightens its vantage but deflates a bit of its energy. Still, that’s a minor quibble. “Logan Lucky” is Soderbergh in mid-season form, and there should be a solid summer niche for a movie that’s this much ripsnorting fun.