When a director comes from independent beginnings and works their way through to the mainstream, it’s always interesting (and sometimes disheartening) to see how much or how little of the filmmaker’s personality survives the process. In this respect, Steven Soderbergh is one of the most notable figures of the past three decades. His 1989 feature debut and Cannes Best Picture winner Sex, Lies and Videotape arguably set the tone for the American indie cinema of the 1990s (blazing the trail for Linklater, Tarantino and co.), and just over a decade later Soderbergh would have a Best Director Oscar and a number of major box office hits to his name. His prolific career has also seen him take on a surprisingly diverse range of projects, encompassing crime thrillers (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s 11 movies), science fiction (his remake of Solaris), martial arts action (Haywire), and male strippers (Magic Mike), as well as the more grounded dramas on which he made his name.
Now, after one of the shortest retirements in history (2013’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candalabra was meant to be his last film), Soderbergh has returned to directing, and interestingly he has chosen to do so not with a small, introspective indie drama, but with a big name cast and a multiplex-friendly blockbuster set-up; or, at least, Soderbergh’s take on a multiplex-friendly blockbuster. Close enough in tone and content to Ocean’s 11 that it almost feels like a fourth film in that series (indeed, the Ocean movies do get a name check), Logan Lucky is a light-hearted crime comedy with a uniquely working class twist, doing its bit to promote a different perspective to your standard Hollywood fare and challenge a few stereotypes, whilst delivering the thrills, spills and laughs you expect from a Hollywood heist movie.
Channing Tatum (in his fourth collaboration with the actor-faithful Soderbergh, after Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects) is Jimmy Logan, a West Virginian trailer park resident who’s very much down on his luck. Indeed, so unlucky is his family – which includes his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a former soldier who lost an arm in the Middle East – that they’ve long suspected there may be a curse on the whole Logan clan. If that’s true, it strikes again when Jimmy finds himself abruptly fired from his construction job under the Charlotte Motor Speedway, owing to some legal red tape around an old leg injury. Making matters worse, Jimmy’s ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is living the high life with her very well-to-do new husband, and informs Jimmy of their plans to move away, making it even harder for him to see their daughter. In desperation, Jimmy hits upon a radical course of action: robbing the Speedway during the biggest NASCAR event of the season. But neither Jimmy, Clyde, nor their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) have any experience of large-scale robbery, so they hit up local explosives specialist Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) for assistance. Only problem is, on the day they plan to do the job, Joe Bang will still be in jail. However, the Logans have a plan to get Joe out and rob the speedway without anyone being any the wiser about it.
Soderbergh’s more mainstream work has always been interesting, in that he’s taken projects which could easily have been realised in a considerably glossier, blockbusterish fashion, yet managed to keep a vaguely arty edge to proceedings. It’s not that his films are necessarily art house, more that they fit an older definition of what a mainstream movie is. In the case of Logan Lucky, it’s not hard to envisage a very similar film being made in the 1970s with, say, Burt Reynolds or Steve McQueen in the lead. Just about all the typical blockbuster story beats are hit – a path to personal redemption, reconciliation with family – but with Soderbergh calling the shots and keeping things relatively grounded, we avoid the kind of sentimentality and excess theatrics that can sour material of this kind.
This is not to say Logan Lucky doesn’t get a bit theatrical. Daniel Craig, in his first movie role since Spectre (unless we count his not-so secret Star Wars cameo), is clearly savouring the opportunity to brush off the affectations of Bond by playing one of the least suave and charming men imaginable, slapping on a heavy Southern accent as well as a big splodge of peroxide and hamming it up big time. Nor is he the only actor adopting an accent from outside his home shores and playing for laughs as, in the film’s most unexpected, and honestly quite strange casting move, Seth MacFarlane plays an obnoxious British race car owner backing a hot shot young driver (Sebastian Stan), who has some beef with the Logan boys. I suppose some viewers may enjoy the Family Guy creator adopting this Pythonesque persona, but his scenes rather tested my patience. Thankfully, he’s not around too much; and indeed, this can be said of many of Logan Lucky’s big names, most notably two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank who doesn’t show up until the final half hour, and doesn’t get a great deal to do in that time.
Soderbergh has more than twenty feature films to his name at present, and while I doubt Logan Lucky will ever be held up as one of his best, it’s a fun, undemanding evening’s entertainment and an entirely respectable entry in a respectable body of work. It provides further evidence of what a solid leading man Channing Tatum is (who’d have thought it this time ten years ago?), and also suggests that Adam Driver has a strong future ahead of him beyond Star Wars. Riley Keough also gets a considerably bigger share of the spotlight than expected, even if the same can’t be said of the aforementioned Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, and in particular a largely wasted Katherine Waterston.
Oh, and given the current divided nature of America and the way the rich are screwing the poor all over the world, there’s plenty to be said in favour of Logan Lucky’s positive portrayal of characters who might ordinarily be written off as poor white trash. But the film doesn’t get on a soapbox about it, so I shouldn’t either.
Logan Lucky is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 26th December, from Studiocanal.