Has the word “fun” been used often to describe Steven Soderbergh’s movies? The Oscar-winning writer/director has had one of the most efficient work ethics in Hollywood, jumping between studio-friendly, meticulously-crafted dramas (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Side Effects) to off-beat, obtuse experiments (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). But even if he’s had more good movies than bad, his movies are almost always appear very dry, stiff, and mechanical. Even in his movies that have their share of comedic moments (the Ocean’s trilogy, Magic Mike, The Informant!), it’s all part of some type of chrome machine in the midst of spinning its well-oiled gears. Soderbergh is a technician behind the camera, no doubt, but there’s a sense that behind his bald head and miniature-Buddy Holly glasses is a man with little time for silliness.
So he must’ve had a very enlightening four-year break from directing movies (aside from directing the TV series The Knick for a year) because Soderbergh has finally found his funny bone with Logan Lucky. There are two Logans referenced in the title: Jimmy (Channing Tatum) is a single dad with a banged-up knee, no job, a pageant-ready daughter and her uptight mother (Katie Holmes) planning on moving farther away from his West Virginia trailer. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (Adam Driver) is a war veteran who lost his left hand during a tour and tends the local bar. In a fit of annoyance and anger over his life, Jimmy decides to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina with the help of Clyde and their speed-freak sister Mellie (Riley Keough). But they need a demolition expert, so they rely on the bleached locks of local inmate Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to break into the vault and race off with millions.
As far as car-related heist movies in 2017 go, Logan Lucky beats Baby Driver by a country mile. And that’s on top of the fact that it’s one of Soderbergh’s finest works and one of the best movies of the year. Compared to his other movies, Logan Lucky has Soderbergh’s usual talent for directing sharp actors and setting up scene progression while also feeling looser, more relaxed, and effortless. Despite being far away from any form of metropolis (the director’s usual choice of setting), Logan Lucky still looks very much like a Steven Soderbergh production. As both director and cinematographer, Soderbergh shoots the movie in his typical hyper-realistic vision with hi-resolution video instead of film. That shows as the fluorescent whites and reds and the natural but bracing natural sunlight wafts over the actors in scenes.
The movie is also complemented with some fantastic music from the ever-reliable David Holmes, the man behind the iconic scores of the Ocean’s trilogy. But while those heist movies were backed by smooth and propulsive jazz, Logan Lucky’s southern swagger rides on slide guitar and soulful organs, not to mention classic selections from Dr. John, Mark & The Escorts, and John Denver. In fact, Logan Lucky is somewhat of a bizzaro-Ocean’s movie. It’s a big-time heist that’s smaller in scale, features a cavalcade of characters that are mostly background filler for the leads, and has a style that thrives on the dirty dismissiveness of blue collar America. It’s a high-class premise that thrives on the personality of the working class and for someone who’s spent most of his career fascinated with the financially spoiled, it’s refreshing to see Soderbergh having fun with his subject matter.
On top of a cracking and very funny script from Rebecca Blunt (possibly a pseudonym for Soderbergh, something he does frequently) is one of Soderbergh’s most unique and able casts to date. Despite being more stoic and awkward than any of his scenes in Girls, Driver is so stellar at doing deadpan that Aubrey Plaza might blush. His comic timing, his peculiar delivery of the southern accent, and the use of his fake arm all add to his utterly hypnotic performance. Keough is a bit underused but peppers in bits of sass when needed without being written off as the easy sex symbol of the film. But then there’s Daniel Craig in the performance that the movie, the audience and, most importantly, he needed. While Craig has become an international superstar from his cold and brooding portrayal of James Bond, it’s somewhat hindered audience’s belief of his abilities and his acting opportunities. But the second he walks into Logan Lucky with hair as white as the soft-boiled eggs he gets from the prison vending machine and an accent as kooky as Howdy Doody, Craig blooms into an absolute delight. What’s amazing about his performance is how there is that classic Craig cool in his walk, his stare, and especially his restraint. But the humor in his performance is in the unflinching acceptance of the ludicrous situation surrounding him. Craig not only rolls with the punches, but is radiating joy throughout the movie.
The rest of the stock cast are either brief blips of comedy (Holmes, Dwight Yoakam, Katherine Waterston, and David Denman) or entirely pointless to the rest of the movie (Sebastian Stan, Seth MacFarlane, and Hilary Swank). As far as the main cast goes, Tatum is the weakest link. He’s certainly the most grounded of the characters and the straight man in all this, but Tatum seems more like an instrument to serve the plot than a fleshed-out character. He’s not bad per say, just a character that seems easily forgettable and removable. A spare part, if you will.
Regardless, Logan Lucky speeds and cruises like the freshest Ford Mustang. It shifts and drifts without any sign of choking. Soderbergh isn’t showing off or trying to preach social commentary, he’s just having fun making movies again. And why shouldn’t he, with a cast this good and an incredibly attractive style. Can Soderbergh be fun? Bet on it.