Steven Soderbergh makes it look easy. Here’s a director who “retired” from filmmaking four years ago after releasing the prescription drug thriller Side Effects, only to turn his attention to prestige television, where he directed the Emmy-winning Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra for HBO and all 20 episodes of the early-20th- century hospital drama The Knick. Now the Oscar winner returns to the big screen to show everyone else how it’s done.
If you’re one of the few who remember last year’s Masterminds, Jared Hess’ muddled comedy about an armored car heist carried out by bumbling rednecks, you might think you know what you’re in for with Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, since it focuses on a family of economically challenged West Virginians who attempt to reverse a supposed “family curse,” changing their luck with a plan to rob North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca- Cola 600, the circuit’s most popular NASCAR event of the year. You’d be wrong.
While the film may share some obvious parallels with Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), its DNA more closely resembles 2012’s Magic Mike, the director’s fictionalized look at actor Channing Tatum’s early days making ends meet as a male stripper after a knee injury scotched his football scholarship at a Florida school. First-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt shares Soderbergh’s interest in exploring how a post-recession world has driven good people to do things they may not have otherwise considered in order to get by, and she actually wrote the role of former coal miner Jimmy Logan with Alabama native Tatum in mind. But rather than turn Jimmy into an entertainer, Blunt keeps her blue-collar underdog at home in the South. Laid off due to a pre-existing condition (yes, it’s still a bum knee), the divorced dad enlists the aid of his brother and sister—one-armed Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost his limb on the way back from a tour of duty in Iraq, and Mellie (Riley Keough), a car-obsessed hairdresser—to help carry out his scheme.
Unlike Danny Ocean’s crew, Jimmy and his siblings don’t begin as criminals; they’re not only forced to learn as they go, but they also have to seek outside help from a demolition expert, appropriately named Joe Bang. There’s just one problem: Joe is currently incarcerated. He’s also played by a platinum- haired, heavily tattooed Daniel Craig, who’s obviously reveling in his chance to try on a Southern drawl—and doing it exceptionally well. The explosive lunacy he brings to the film is worth the price of admission, and the role serves as a reminder of how strong a character actor Craig was before he became synonymous with James Bond.
In fact, Soderbergh has rounded out his cast with a number of terrific performers, all of whom contribute nicely comic turns, from Brian Gleeson (actor Brendan’s son) and Jack Quaid (Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid’s boy) as Joe’s would-be hacker brothers, Sam and Fish, to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane as the wonderfully named Max Chilblain, an obnoxious car team sponsor with a British accent as phony as his mustache. Likewise, Dwight Yoakam adds some dimwitted charm as the warden who’s so wrapped up in containing a riot—one that hilariously hinges on George R. R. Martin’s inability to complete his series of fantasy novels—that he fails to notice that Joe’s been sprung from and returned to prison during the commotion.
Clever little touches like that are peppered throughout Blunt’s canny script, which respects the characters rather than mock them. She gives us just enough information to follow what’s happening, playing coy enough to drop some welcome surprises in the home stretch. Of course, Soderbergh and his collaborators also deserve much of the credit in making sure Blunt’s ideas translate well from the page to the screen, and the physically dissimilar Tatum and Driver provide a strong anchor as the credulity-stretching brothers who might be a bit smarter than they first appear. Meanwhile, DJ and talented composer David Holmes (who’s been providing music for many of Soderbergh’s films since 1998’s Out of Sight) offers another poppy, propulsive score to complement the sharp cinematography by Peter Andrews and the clean editing of Mary Ann Bernard. It’s worth noting that Andrews and Bernard are pseudonyms for the multitalented Soderbergh, drawn from his father’s and mother’s names. And the alias games have seemingly now extended to “Rebecca Blunt.” Unconfirmed reports indicate that this freshman dramatist is none other than Soderbergh’s wife of 14 years, Jules Asner, the former model and entertainment reporter who published her first novel, Whacked, back in 2008.
Here’s hoping this won’t be Soderbergh’s last effort with “Blunt” behind the keyboard. In teaming up, they’ve created a fun, breezy comedy, and there’s no disguising that the film is a welcome return for the director. ◆
Logan Lucky ***1/2
Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Seth Mac- Farlane, Farrah Mackenzie, Katie Holmes, David Denman, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Macon Blair, Hilary Swank and Daniel Craig. Written by Rebecca Blunt. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.