People who care about movies tend to fixate on screenplays and cinematography, on editing and performances, but the most underrated tool for assessing the worth of a movie is generosity of spirit: How does a filmmaker treat his characters, and what do those characters’ actions say about the world at large? Steven Soderbergh’s heist comedy Logan Lucky — which stars Channing Tatum as a divorced West Virginia dad who, out of desperation, masterminds an elaborate robbery of North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway — is one of the director’s most exuberant pictures. It’s also one that doesn’t take the best impulses of humankind for granted.
Tatum’s Jimmy Logan appears to be living under the family Logan Curse, even though he doesn’t fully believe in it: A bum leg, which he’s tried to keep a secret, has lost him his job. And his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is about to move to another state, taking the couple’s pigtailed mite of a daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) with her. Jimmy entices his bartender brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), who lost part of his arm in Iraq, and his tough-cookie hairstylist sister Mellie (Riley Keough), to join him in stealing a bunch of loot, a scheme that involves busting the local explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of prison. The master plan includes fake salt, cockroaches painted with nail polish and an elaborate chalkboard equation explaining the science behind making a big boom. “Or,” Joe says, “as I like to call it, a Joe Bang.”
This messy hash of flimflammery comes together, in the end, with ace line-cook clarity. But the pleasures of Logan Lucky go far beyond its mechanics, and beneath its pleasures lie some bedrock truths. With each passing day our country seems to grow more rigidly divided, and our heightened fear and anxiety has had a corrosive effect. Each side seems more certain who is “us” and who is “them” — we can tell who the enemy is, apparently, without even looking at actual faces, or without knowing people’s stories. It’s a dangerous juncture.
Logan Lucky is a fantasy of sorts, a tall tale about the little guy fighting back: Jimmy’s rickety plan shouldn’t work — in the aftermath, it’s referred to in news reports, with more than a glimmer of admiration, as “the hillbilly heist.” But the movie doesn’t condescend to its characters, and the picture coasts breezily on the performers’ energy — their characters defy cartoonishness even as they dare us to see them only as cartoons. The casting of Driver and Tatum as brothers is so outlandish it’s inspired. (Keogh, with that appraising, take-no-prisoner’s glint in her eye, is such a marvelous wild card that she could probably play anybody’s sister.) Clyde, somber and thoughtful, seems at first to be a classic bubble-buster, the sort of person who urges his friends and family members not to aim too high as a hedge against the gut-punch of disappointment. But there’s urgency, and energy, in his own disillusionment. When a local hothead rich asshole — played by an unrecognizable Seth MacFarlane — drops into Clyde’s bar and, as if he were proffering his nickel for a sideshow act, urges him to fix up a martini with his fake arm, Clyde does the only sensible thing: He removes the artificial limb and mixes the drink, to perfection, with his one good hand.
This is the opposite of giving up, defiant confidence born of necessity. Clyde is an exemplar of clarity and reason in a wrongheaded world, and the character works because of the inherent trustworthiness of Driver’s face — he’s expressive even when he’s deadpan. Physically, Tatum’s Jimmy doesn’t resemble Clyde at all. But his swagger, even with that rotten leg, suggests a spiritual kinship between the two. Tatum’s pinup hunkiness is hardly even up for debate, thanks, at least in part, to Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and Gregory Jacobs’ follow-up Magic Mike XXL. But good-looking guys are a dime a dozen in the movies, as they always have been. Tatum has a kind of casual radiance that goes beyond basic handsomeness. He seems alive to the molecules around him — a dazzling quality by itself, but one that’s particularly useful when you’re playing a character who needs to make his own luck.
Logan Lucky is close in tone to one of Soderbergh’s finest movies, Out of Sight (1998), adapted from material by the great Elmore Leonard. Leonard could concoct dazzling plots, but he was really more interested in exploring why human beings think as they do — and teasing out twinges of recognition in all of us. Leonard is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in the Logan Lucky script, attributed to one “Rebecca Blunt.” It has been rumored that Blunt is a fictitious person. If only more not-fictitious people could write scripts like these. Independently financed and distributed by Soderbergh, Logan Lucky is a magnificent movie that comes disguised as a modest one. Or, as I like to call it, a Joe Bang.