In 2013, after making Side Effects, Stephen Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. Over the next few years, he kept busy, primarily as the main creative force behind the TV series The Knick, which he directed, executive produced, shot, and edited. But the lure of the big screen was apparently too great and the arrival of Logan Lucky has transformed the "retirement" into a "hiatus." Soderbergh's return is welcome on a number of levels, chief of which is that this adds a competent story/character-centric director to the release treadmill.
Logan Lucky is a comedy-caper film about the heist of a large number of bills from the "secure" vault at a North Carolina speedway during a major NASCAR event. For about 90 minutes, Soderbergh seems to be channeling the Coen Brothers. The quirky brand of humor mingled with unique characters and oddball situations is just a stone's throw away from the kind of material Joel & Ethan Coen love while echoing some of the elements Soderbergh previously toyed with in Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, and Ocean's Thirteen. Unfortunately, while Logan Lucky is 3/4ths of a very good movie, the final half-hour becomes narratively unfocused as it strives to tie up some loose ends. Two new characters (one of whom is played by Hilary Swank) add little to the overall storyline and Logan Lucky ends up concluding with 30 minutes of anticlimax.
Although Logan Lucky works as a heist film, it neither amazes with its narrative contortions nor keeps the audience waiting with baited breath for the unveiling of some big twist. Most of the minimal tension is as result of the bumbling of the criminals - these aren't the "brightest bulbs in the package" and it seems unlikely they'll be able to pull off something major. At first, Soderbergh seems to be using regional stereotypes for comedic purposes, he pulls the rug out from under us by making us reconsider whether all the players are really as stupid as they initially seem. (Some undoubtedly are, but others…?)
The cast is comprised of A-list actors. Channing Tatum, who has been one of Soderbergh's go-to actors for a while, plays Jimmy Logan, a recently unemployed construction worker who decides to replace his hard-earned pay with the ill-gotten gains from a robbery. Having participated in an excavation project under the speedway, he has the inside track on how such a robbery can be accomplished. He invites the participation of his one-armed brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), and his sister, Mellie (Riley Keogh). However, the three of them aren't enough. They need an expert safe cracker and the only one they know is the aptly-named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is currently incarcerated and therefore unavailable. Jimmy considers this a mild inconvenience and decides that the scheme will also involve breaking Joe out of prison so he can do the job then returning him before anyone notices he's missing. Also appearing in Logan Lucky are such recognizable faces as Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, and Seth MacFarlane.
Although most of the comedy in Logan Lucky is of the dry, off-kilter sort, there are some laugh-aloud moments. (I won't detail them here since spontaneity is laughter's best friend.) Jimmy's character is the best developed of everyone which is fitting since he sits at the story's focal point. He's presented as a good natured, hard-working fellow who loves his young daughter, doesn't dislike his ex-wife, is loyal to his friends and family, and aspires to be known as a responsible provider. He wants the crime to be victimless and, in that, he's largely successful. Logan Lucky has a zero body count. Daniel Craig's turn as Joe Bang is the movie's highlight. Craig, with his bleach-blonde buzz-cut, clearly enjoys playing someone lacking 007's suave mannerisms. Where Bond may prefer things "shaken not stirred," Bang likes them shaken, stirred, and smashed against a wall.
A minor off-screen controversy (not really but that's how it's being portrayed in some corners) has accompanied the release of Logan Lucky (and one might wonder whether this has been concocted as a way to increase the movie's visibility). The existence of the credited screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, has been called into question by The Hollywood Reporter, which believes Blunt to be a pseudonym. This isn't implausible - the only interaction the cast had with Blunt was via e-mail, she has no other credits to her name, and Soderbergh is known for using pseudonyms. Ultimately, it's a red herring. Whoever Rebecca Blunt is, he/she has written a witty screenplay that maintains its narrative momentum until it begins unraveling in the meandering final half-hour.
Although Logan Lucky isn't a homerun, it's an enjoyable late-summer diversion and at least as worthy has half the summer blockbusters of spending two hours in an air-conditioned theater. It's good to have Soderbergh back, even if he never was really away.