I think Hollywood categorises this out-of-unhappy-retirement film directed by Steven Soderbergh as a zany comedy about no hopers with ambitions way above their abilities. As it is, it’s an enjoyable romp elevating the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. And you get pouty Daniel Craig in peroxide hair slumming before he sets off for another outing as the psychotic James Bond.
I begin with praise and an admission. I like the title Logan Lucky rather than the more obvious ‘Lucky Logan’, for it suggests the possessive, a neat twist, which is what we get in the film’s plotting. In fact, the story is about two Logan brothers and their immediate Logan family, hence Logan Lucky is the correct way around. And the admission is, I’ve never found a single film of Soderberghs a hundred percent satisfying. There’s something weak or uneven in their construction, and yet I know I am watching the work of a talented cameraman who developed into a fine filmmaker.
It might have something to do with his preference for ensemble work, stars never hogging the limelight. Or it could be the semi-documentary style he tends to shoot his serious dramas, or it might be the writing lacks authenticity. I will carry forever zinging in my head Catherine Zeta-Jones line playing a Mexican drug lord’s wife in Traffic (2000). In broad Welsh she shouts “Shoot ‘im in the head!” You half-expect ‘boyo’ to come next.
You can keep his commercial Oceans 11 nonsense, Poundshop pulp of no discernible value, but even at his best there’s a dramatic punch that’s missing.
A good many of his projects are three-plus or four star features, always missing out on that five star classic. There’s a tragedy in the human condition that somehow Soderbergh is unable to convey to its fullest, deepest extent, something holding him back. Still, his plots and characters are always watchable, as is this sub-Coen Brothers lark.
After a depressing dog’s dinner of limp Hollywood summer blockbusters I’m pleased I can recommend this ace piece of work.
In this hillbilly heist, the West Virginia prison where vault specialist Joe Bang, (Daniel Craig) resides is a haven of tranquillity. (There’s that Soderbergh weakness right there, a tough American prison that’s run as if a nursery.) For the heist to work the ‘crew’ need to enlist the expertise of Bang, a safe blowing expert, but how to spring him from prison?
Craig gives us the weirdest, most, strangled Southern accented criminal I’ve ever heard, but being a comedy we accept it. Only a small part of this caper takes place in this high security prison but it sets the Soderbergh tone, just skimming below the surface of human relationships without getting too psychological.
In the first scenes, Soderbergh has Jimmy Logan, (Channing Tatum) a football star turned down-on-his-luck dad, as a quintessential good ol’ boy who gets fired from his job at a NASCAR track because of his limp. Actually, it’s an old football injury which he forgot to put on his application form, then again, who puts their minuses and failures on their curriculum vitae (resume)?
Jimmy has a plan to avoid the poverty trap, a 10-step plan for breaking into the track’s underground cash vault. (Every second step is categorised as ‘shit happens’.) He jots his plan down on paper and its contents are discovered by his brother (Bro’) Clyde, played by the soulful Adam Driver. “I see you’ve got a robbery to-do list on the refrigerator.” Clyde is a sad-sack bartender whose most interest aspect is his fake arm – I mean hand.
At this point the story gets complicated, and being a heist, contains never-ending plot twists. You need to keep your wits about you to follow it. The loyal bros hire Joe and his bros – two scruffy ne’er-do-wells without a brain cell to rub between them. They are Sam, (Brian Gleeson) and Fish, (Jack Quaid) Bang – to break out Joe from his stripy pyjama prison and steal all the ticket takings from the race track. They agree to take part in the robbery for “mor-al-ity” reasons.
The first problem in any robbery? – how to get past the security.
I don’t recall another film that shows life in and around a NASCAR race track, but if what we see is indicative, it’s pretty well big bucks, trailer trash, and redneck country. Soderbergh and his writer treat that event as it should be, a major sporting event on the American calendar. NASCAR has never taken off in the UK; there’s something seriously boring watching cars going around and around an oval for hours. Crashes offer some respite. For car mad Americans it’s their Formula 1, the drivers celebrities and heroes.
Once at the race track the film comes alive less for the performances, more for trivia titbits about American raceway. We start to get a taste of Soderbergh’s interest in small-time crooks without a bad aspect to their character other than an ambition to keep their heads above water whatever the cost. You can describe the heist crew as Robin Hood and his unwashed merry men, distributing money to the poor, but it isn’t a glossy Oceans 11 where well-groomed smartass crooks outsmart well-groomed smart-ass crooks.
First-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt keeps things moving along in a humorous way, leaving us to figure out the heist plot. Blunt is rumoured to be Jules Asner, Soderbergh’s wife, although I got the impression Soderbergh had written a lot of the material – perhaps it’s a joint affair. If so, they must have had lots of fun writing the jokey scenes.
I much prefer Craig as a comedy crook than any bum freezer suited Bond he’s played to date. He seems liberated from the king of killing cool and Mister Meanman roles. Tatum, (credited as one of the producers) so often cast as the Mister Sixpack, superman without a cape, revels in an old, fat gut daddy role, dressing schlubby, but a man of scruples, always caring of his brother.
When Joe tells the bros that it must be true what people say, Logans are “slow in the head,” Jimmy and Clyde turn to one another incredulously, “People say that?”
Adam Driver owns the face of a manic depressive horse – Nicolas Cage must be envious – which I hope Driver accepts as a well-meant compliment. He’d fit in perfectly to any French comedy, a foil to Jacques Tati. He’s more comfortable here out of priest’s smock and away from Scorsese’s grim study of misplaced faith. I don’t care how many dramas he does, Driver’s physiognomy is a comedian’s gift.
Writer and comedy actor Seth MacFarlane does a turn as a wealthy, narcissistic English racing manager, goading everybody around him that he’s famous, and why didn’t they recognise him? His character is the least plausible, but it adds to the plot.
The race track in question is Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. That’s where Jimmy 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), and lands in a steel bank vault. The last time I saw one of those contraptions was in Jenner’s Department Store on Princes Street, Edinburgh back in the seventies – I think.
I have no idea if that if the money collecting system is reality at NASCAR or like the rest of the screenplay, fiction, but we believe in it all from the start. Because of the repair work, the vault’s seismic-sensor alarm system has been turned off, and those money tubes are just asking for somebody to break in and steal the loot.
There’s much to enjoy, and lots to laugh at – the audience I was in was slow to chuckle – plus Soderbergh’s customary error of judgement. There’s a strand of ill-placed love interest that doesn’t belong in the film. It’s between Jimmy and a community medic named Sylvia, (Katherine Waterston). The meet one minute, and then are stroking each other the next in a flirtatious scene that has no bearing on the plot.
Good to see Hilary Swank back on the screen showing off her acting chops, shame she appear in the last quarter. (How she managed to survive that unfortunate surname is anybody’s guess.) A few years back she was Hollywood’s leading lady until her marriage fell apart and she stepped out of the limelight. Here she plays an FBI agent as dogged as any sleuth in pursuit of their man.
The last film Soderbergh directed was the hilarious send up of bouffant piano maestro Liberace, entitled Candelabra, (2013) with Michael Douglas playing the Queen of camp. Logan Lucky is just as sharply observant but this is a tall tale of unemployment and spiritual deprivation, the latter a hallmark of Soderbergh’s obsessions.
Wacky eccentric characters are all terrific company, the kind you might meet on a long coach trip ross states, a Greyhound bus, and get to know between chatter, jokes, diner and toilet stops. I enjoyed not knowing where the heist was going one minute to the next – we don’t get a detailed explanation beforehand. The convoluted plan is entertaining to figure out as it goes along. The cast rise to the script and the ensemble work is flawless.
If the ending is too smart-ass clever set against bumbling rogues, and the film isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as the hype would have us believe, it doesn’t matter, it keeps us smiling. We leave with quotations and moments on which we can dine out. The plot is a welcome fresh version of a heist, and anyhow, we can see the cast had a good time too.
- Star Rating: Three-and-a-half
- Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Farrah Mackenzie, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig
- Director: Steven Soderbergh.
- Writer: Rebecca Blunt
- Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh
- Composer: David Holmes
- Duration: 105 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?