In Logan Lucky, Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a chubby divorced dad who, every day, drives from his tin shack in West Virginia to his hard-hat construction gig two states away in Concord, North Carolina. His job is to repair sinkholes under the Charlotte Motor Speedway; that is until someone from human resources spots him walking with a limp. It’s an old football injury. He should have put it on his application form. But if he’d have done that, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. HR thinks the limp could signal a “pre-existing condition”, which could prove “actionable”, so Jimmy’s laid off. Here today, gone tomorrow. Ladies and gentlemen: the circular corporate injustice of hardscrabble life in the so-called red states.
Jimmy’s younger brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq War veteran who lost his left hand in a roadside bombing, insists that this is further proof of “the Logan curse”, a local Boone County legend that explains why the family has gone nowhere but downhill since high school. Clyde’s got a point. He’s a bartender at a local pub, the Duck Tape, while Jimmy’s ex-wife, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), has full custody of their daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), and wants to move out-of-state with her prosperous auto-dealer husband, Moody (David Denman). Jimmy, whose phone has been cut off due to non-payment, is too broke to mount a legal case in the family-court system, so instead pitches a scheme to use his knowledge of the snake-like pneumatic cylinders under the Speedway to rob it during the Coca-Cola 600 – one of the premier NASCAR events of the year.
Jimmy feels justified in this scheme, and so do the audience. This is in part thanks to Channing Tatum operating at his most sympathetic and charming, but it’s also a consequence of specificity. It’d be easy to imagine a version of this story that parodied or satirized rural, blue-collar Southern life, but Logan Lucky fuels its emotional engine with a laundry list of legitimate grievances; poverty, economic abandonment, class disparity, and national policies that have gutted environmental laws, slashed public service budgets, and left justice to those who profit from injustice. The Logans – including their snarky hairdresser sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), who’s quickly let in on the heist – are resentful of their invisible corporate overlords, but also keenly aware of how their community operates – or, given the state of the country’s governance and economy, how it fails to operate.
This is how their plan can include a local hayseed chemistry wizard aptly named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who’s currently being housed in county jail. The prison system is being run for the benefit of administrators whose abuses of inmates and disregard for protocol must be kept covered-up, thus allowing Joe to be sprung for the day and deposited back inside after the heist. The only complication is that Joe insists his Southern-fried siblings, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), also lend their questionable expertise. (“All the Twitters, I know ‘em.”)
Logan Lucky is the theatrical comeback of the recently un-retired Steven Soderbergh, and arriving at the end of an up-and-down summer it’s both four years too late and right on time. The theme might feel formulaic – strands of the complex plot intertwine and overlap, the tiny details that go into the realisation of the heist are as well-oiled as the mechanisms of any self-respecting redneck’s pickup truck, and there’s an explanatory circling-back to explain all the sleight of hand – but it is, after all, Soderbergh’s own formula. Nobody’s better at the meticulous execution of a criminal scheme; not with this kind of energy, inventiveness, temperament and technique. Logan Lucky, for all its hee-haw habits and yokel yapping, is like all – well, most – of Soderbergh’s sharply intelligent work – an exaltation of rational process and intelligence. His characters here might conceal their mental acuity behind bumptious Southern hospitality, but the film makes a point that their smarts are integral to the scheme; not only are the story’s nominal villains making the same judgements as most of the audience, but our heroes are counting on it.
First-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt’s script is so sharply observed that the authentic warmth and good humour extend beyond the stereotypical fixtures of country life – NASCAR, John Denver, county fairs, child beauty pageants – and into the bleaker realities of a maligned society’s fringes. Jimmy encounters a former high-school friend, Sylvia Harrison (the chameleonic Katherine Waterston), a doctor who runs a mobile medical unit that relies on donations thanks to the inadequacy of local health care, and while this character and her situation seem far removed from Joe’s eminently mockable brothers, they all know what they’re doing – even if they can’t always put a finger on precisely why they’re doing it. The whole film is like that; taut and intricate, intercutting between people and places who slot together seamlessly into a naturalistic, folksy mosaic. It has the brusqueness of a people who are often underrepresented and vilified, but the intimacy of a community who have grown up in the same pocket of the South’s rhinestone-studded jeans.
The only unfortunate consequence of such a large cast and a familiar structure is that everything beyond the centre of the piece gets jostled to the edge of the frame. Waterston brings something to her brief scenes, but that’s a result of fine acting rather than depth of writing, and she scarcely has more to do as Jimmy’s potential love-interest than Hilary Swank as an F.B.I. agent tasked with investigating the robbery. Swank’s character has a fierce intellect, and sees through the put-on blithering and phony alibis, but she’s stymied by political and corporate finessing. Soderbergh takes care to display the contrast, but never explores it. This isn’t a huge issue; there are other characters that are similarly underdeveloped, but they’re instead set up as ninepins to be knocked down, either with jokes or by the story’s accelerating momentum. Moody is among them, as is an image-conscious prison warden (Dwight Yoakam), a clean-living spiritual NASCAR driver (Sebastian Stan), and an extraordinarily obnoxious energy-drink tycoon sponsor played, with moneyed smugness and an outrageous Cockney accent, by Seth MacFarlane.
Soderbergh and Blunt subject those of the charmless bourgeoisie to outright ridicule, but their film works so well – and, to be frank, this is the finest movie of the summer, and one of the best of the year – because of the regional idiosyncrasies that they mine not for laughs, but for genuine affection and poignancy. There’s a scene in particular which concludes the second act, and which involves Jimmy’s daughter and a pageant performance, that could easily have been cloying and ridiculous but turns out to pack a real emotional wallop. The narrative might have a giddy, handmade panache, but the real success of Logan Lucky is in its abandonment of cartoonishness and caricature. This is an earnest and sincere caper that steals the affection of the audience for the denizens of Trump country – and that might be the greatest heist of all.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.