No matter the second-rate Nazis marching across the University of Virginia campus this past weekend—all, they claim, in protest of the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee—the South will not rise again. And yet for an alternate, and far more endearing, view of life below the Mason-Dixon line, this Friday brings with it Logan Lucky, a southern-fried caper of virtuosic showmanship that, beneath its easygoing exterior, also succeeds at tapping into larger socioeconomic concerns. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, as a trucker hat variation on his stylishly dapper Ocean’s Eleven films, it’s pure pop entertainment, replete with a standout debut performance from an actor who’ll soon be a Hollywood force with which to reckon: Daniel Craig.
Okay, so maybe Craig isn’t exactly a fresh-faced newbie. But Logan Lucky’s treatment of him as such—via title cards that read “and introducing Daniel Craig”—speaks to its reinvention of both the star’s big-screen persona, as well as the traditional heist film. In Soderbergh’s fun-loving redneck comedy, Craig plays Joe Bang, a prison inmate with a short blond buzzcut, strapping tattooed muscles, and an intimidatingly mischievous twinkle in this eye. As befitting his cartoon name, he’s a safecracker par excellence, and although the story (by Rebecca Blunt, an alias, reportedly, for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner) initially finds him incarcerated in a big house run by Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam, eliciting laughs in his every scene), he’s soon destined to receive a reprieve from his behind-bars existence, courtesy of two brothers with a plan to stick it to the Man.
Those siblings are Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), members of a North Carolina clan notorious, regionally, for having bad luck. Fed up with that dubious reputation, the duo decide to right their family’s wayward misfortune through illicit means—namely, by robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway on its busiest day of the year: the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race. The idea for this ruse is born after Jimmy, part of the construction team tasked with renovating the venue, is fired for having a bum leg; regardless of his capability with the machinery he has to operate, insurance regulations stipulate that his disability disqualifies him for such employment. That puts Jimmy in a bind, given that his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), now shacked up with conceited car salesman Moody (David Denman), is preparing to move out of town with his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), which has put him in need of finances that would allow him to relocate alongside them in order to continue being a part of his beloved kid’s life.
It’s a case study of a decent working-class man being marginalized for callous corporate-regulation reasons, and Tatum embodies his protagonist with a sense of humor that’s underscored by aggrieved anger. To get his revenge, he concocts a scheme to pilfer the Speedway, which on event day sends its cash to a subterranean vault via a system of high-pressure tubes. To aid him in that quest, he enlists Clyde and sister Mellie (Riley Keough), the former an Army veteran who works as a local bartender after having lost his lower left arm in Iraq—an injury that now requires him to wear a fake appendage, and which marks him as an individual who, exploited and discarded by the system, is a kindred spirit to Jimmy. Before long, they’re roping into their ruse Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), a couple of hillbilly morons who claim to have computer expertise (Fish: “All the Twitters. I know them”), as well as their cousin Joe Bang, whom Jimmy and Clyde intend to break out of the clink, have break into the Speedway safe, and then break back into his cell without anyone knowing.
If that sounds like an intricate scam, it’s only the beginning of Logan Lucky’s strategic maneuvers, which soon include its protagonists crossing paths with an arrogant celebrity (Seth MacFarlane)—first in a bar fight, and then later during a critical juncture in their mission—and Jimmy bumping into a former high school acquaintance (Katherine Waterston) who may provide hope for future romance. Soderbergh handles this material with a freewheeling auteurist skill that’s enlivening, shuttling between various points of interest with crackling fleetness, and amplifying his script’s numerous one-liners with sly, punchy edits and canny visual compositions. As with his Ocean’s movies, similar team-effort robbery movies that revel in the sight of capable men and women pulling off elaborate machinations while engaging in snappy banter, the director’s latest is a superior sort of clockwork device, expertly assembling (and then disassembling) its myriad parts with invigorating fluidity.
Logan Lucky moves with the speed and strength of one of the NASCAR vehicles circling the Speedway track, so cool and confident under increasing narrative pressure (to keep everything lucid, to wrap things up in a cleverly unexpected manner, to maintain its comedic sensibility) that it manages to conscript two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Macon Blair (he of Green Room and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore fame) into its late action as FBI agents trying to piece together the central crime. Even before they arrive on the scene to put further pressure on Jimmy and Clyde (the latter brought to droll low-voiced life by a great Driver), the film has proven itself to be an all-star winner, so inventive and sure of itself that, at a random point during Bang’s escape from prison, it slips in a hilarious gag about Game of Thrones. In moments like these, Soderbergh demonstrates his complete, poised control of the proceedings—and, in doing so, generates consistent anticipation for the suspenseful and/or humorous surprise coming around each ensuing corner.
When it comes to surprises, there may be no bigger one in Logan Lucky than Craig, who here delivers a madly cackling, physically robust tour-de-force, whether he’s changing his clothes in the back of a getaway car while playfully taunting Mellie about peeking at his privates or writing out complex chemical equations for his big “bang” during the climactic heist. Freed from his famous dapper-and-brutish 007 role, Craig seems downright liberated by these backwoods environs. It’ll be a thrill to see what the actor does for his sophomore turn.