Making his inevitable return to feature film directing despite his 2013 ‘retirement’ announcement that followed a particularly prolific period of three releases in quick succession (Magic Mike, Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra), Steven Soderbergh has opted for a low-brow version of his 2001 heist film Ocean’s 11 to mark his return to the big screen. In this instance though, it is a racetrack, rather than a casino, that is the target for a bold robbery; a plan hatched and executed by a decidedly different collective than that which populated Ocean’s 11 and its subsequent sequels. The biggest challenge in deciding how you feel about Logan Lucky might lie in trying to understand exactly what Soderbergh is hoping to achieve. Is he delivering respect or ridicule to the redneck world in which the film is set? It is really hard to tell whether Soderbergh wants us to see the southern hicks who populate the narrative as being underdog heroes or bumbling buffoons. Perhaps they are both and maybe that is the whole point, but it is hard to be sure.
Certainly, Soderbergh has mined every aspect of redneck culture – motor racing (and NASCAR in particular), country music, southern accents, child pageants – in creating the world in which the various members of the crew assembled by Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) are entrenched. Furthermore, all of the characters are clichéd to the hilt; the school football star whose chance at the big time was cruelled by injury and the younger brother who joined the military to make his own mark, only to return minus his left hand; the sister who is all cleavage and mini-skirts and, of course, works in a beauty salon; the ex-wife who has found herself a new, richer husband; and the cute-as-a-button daughter over whom they all fawn, plus an imprisoned explosives ‘expert’ and his hillbilly brothers. It could be argued that Soderbergh is using these characters to challenge stereotypes and cultural elitism (after all, the robbery itself is quite a sophisticated operation that is every bit as improbable as any other film heist) and that is certainly something for which he should be commended. Of course, whether that message gets through to the audience is another question entirely and that is perhaps the biggest challenge the movie faces. Are viewers simply going to laugh at the slow-talking yokels and their crazy get-rich-quick scheme and remain oblivious to the social commentary regarding the way in which our perceptions of people are so often based how they dress or speak, or where they live?
As a result of the knee blowout that ended his NFL aspirations, Jimmy is burdened with a permanent limp that serves as the catalyst for him being fired from his job with a construction company for liability reasons. Embittered and frustrated with his lot in life, he convinces his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) of the potential windfall that awaits them in the underground vault at the famed Charlotte Motor Speedway. A plan is hatched – which includes the need to bust Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of jail for the day to assist – and soon enough the elaborate operation is underway on the biggest day of the year at the track. Sure, the planning and implementation of the robbery is quite ingenious, but so much of what transpires is so beyond the realms of reality that you are both impressed and incredulous in equal measure. Whilst the quality of the core cast, which includes Katie Holmes as Jimmy’s ex-wife, goes a long way to overcoming any shortcomings in the screenplay (credited to a fictional Rebecca Blunt but likely to have been written by Soderbergh, who also served as cinematographer and editor here, as he has done previously), there is nothing that could mask the sheer ridiculousness of Seth McFarlane as race team owner Max Chilblain, with both the character and the performance ludicrous in the extreme and totally out of place in what is an otherwise subdued, but wryly funny piece of work. Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in The Avengers films) fares little better as Chilblain’s new age team driver Dayton White and Dwight Yoakim’s inept prison warden is a convenient construct in service to a convoluted course of events, while Katherine Waterston’s smitten nurse Sylvia seems as though she has lobbed on set from another movie altogether.
Hilary Swank turns up in the final act as a federal agent investigating the robbery, while eagle-eyed NASCAR fans might spot several drivers in cameos as police officers and the like. For all the good things about Logan Lucky, there are oddities and absences aplenty that prevent it from emerging as amongst Soderbergh’s very best. After all, this is the man also responsible for the likes of The Limey, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Contagion and Traffic, for which he picked up an Academy Award. Humorous rather than hilarious, Logan Lucky marks a welcome, if not entirely satisfying, return for one of the most interesting and accomplished contemporary filmmakers.