When Steven Soderbergh ‘retired’ from cinema in 2013, he attributed his frustration with filmmaking in part to “the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen”. Directors were mistreated, he lamented, by financiers who thought they knew best.
Lured back to film by a precision script from Rebecca Blunt, Soderbergh has excised his kitchen of intrusive ass-gas. Pitched at the mid-budget level he loves and Hollywood often neglects, Logan Lucky is prime Soderbergh: a sure-handed and warmly comic heist caper, it arrives packing layers of heart, smarts and surprises under a well-appointed hood.
The backdrop is the NASCAR world, but Soderbergh’s confidence shows more in his steady pacing and rootsy Americana setting than any top-gear gloss. Forget Ocean’s Eleven’s glitzy hustle; forget a certain vehicular franchise, too, which Blunt’s script drops “Furious Fast” puns about.
We’re in West Virginia, where toilet-seat-tossing is a feature at county fairs, and where Channing Tatum’s Jimmy Logan is found working on his wheels as he extols the virtues of a country tune to his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). “I like the song because of the song,” he explains. “I guess I also like it because of the story behind it.”
Likewise, just as his Magic Mike balanced crowd-pleasing instincts with social insight, Soderbergh takes pleasure in fuelling surface mechanics with stories that resonate. When Jimmy is fired from work because of his limp, the scene reflects an uncaring America.
By contrast, Tatum’s unforced charm and Soderbergh’s patient portrait endear this loving lummox of a father to us, even if he isn’t the brightest bulb, or the most punctual dad. A faded quarterback, Jimmy resembles a Springsteen song given serio-comic life: he’s one of America’s forgotten, who cooks up a scheme to score some loot because he wants to do right by his daughter and ex-wife Bobbie (Katie Holmes).
The family ties are strengthened by Jimmy’s brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who shakes up a mean cocktail at a low-lit bar on the edge of town despite having lost an arm in telling circumstances. Aided by the pitch-perfect restraint of Driver’s affectionately blank performance, the chemistry between the siblings is attractive, even if they might be too dim to realise their heist plan is bonkers.
The brothers’ plot to steal money from the Charlotte Motor Speedway sure is elaborate: simply put, the race will distract security while an underground tube system is used to spirit the cash away. But it also offers a neat mirror for Soderbergh’s pitch. He makes slick surface work of team-gathering generics, while the Coen-esque characters and slanted dialogue furnish underlying riches.
Foremost among the rogues’ gallery is “in-car-cer-at-ed” explosives man Joe Bang, whose cartoon-ish name comes with a persona to match, thanks to the redneck relish (and prison onesie) of Daniel Craig’s gamely Bond-blitzing delivery. Aiding him in tech know-how are Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson), dolts whose concerns about the job’s “morality” showcase the comic delights of Blunt’s script. (If it’s good chat you’re after, stay sharp for a deliciously quotable Game of Thrones exchange, too.)
By comparison, the women aren’t as developed as you would like, coming from the director of Erin Brockovich and Haywire. But Riley Keough plays it cool as Mellie Logan, and Katherine Waterston deploys a fine line in scalding looks as a nurse. Holmes, meanwhile, unveils unexpected yet welcome sharp edges as a mother more tightly wound than her strappy shoes.
Propelled by crate-digging Belfast DJ/composer David Holmes’ funky score, the plot is equally tightly wound. Though Soderbergh and his backwoods crims act goofy, both harbour discreet skills. Between an outrageously convoluted prison bust, some nail-varnished cockroaches, and the zip of a bag, the fine points of the heist are marshalled with sly degrees of cheek and panache, tooled to disarm our suspicions. Even if the details don’t hold up, we’re having too much fun watching Team Logan navigate various unexpected variables to mind.
Hilary Swank’s cameo as a tenacious cop threatens to steer events into darker waters, but this isn’t that kind of film. In Soderbergh’s self-aware hands, it’s a character-centric, director-driven, genre-savvy invitation to take pleasure in a job well orchestrated, right up to a judicious closing shot that leaves you wanting to linger awhile with its motley crew. Since few filmmakers are making films like it today, let’s hope Soderbergh lingers in cinema, too. No tooting in his kitchen, please.