There has always been something rather Hawksian about Steven Soderbergh. Speaking with the French magazine Positif in 1993, Soderbergh actually brought up Howard Hawks, a venerable icon of Hollywood cinema, stating, “The career I would like is John Huston’s or Howard Hawks’s. You know, very varied, many different subjects.” It’s true Soderbergh and Hawks diverge greatly in terms of form—the latter is straightforward, classically composed, no frills; the former is stylish, spontaneous, technically innovative—but their recurring subject matter, with a little stretching, isn’t far removed. Take the focus on working professionals in Traffic (2000), the Ocean’s films (2001, ‘04, ‘07), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), and Magic Mike (2012); though not exactly traditional Hawksian occupations, there is a firm appreciation for a job to do and to be done well. More than that, though, what connects Howard Hawks and Steven Soderbergh is their uniform consistency, not necessarily in terms of year-after-year quantity, but rather film-after-film quality. Even lesser titles from these two directors are worth a watch, on the grounds of historical relevance or intriguing experimentation, if nothing else. Look at Full Frontal (2002) and The Good German (2006), two movies widely seen as minor Soderbergh, would anyone really consider them outright artistic failures? Not every picture is a masterpiece (though they each have more of those than most), but with every film, one gets the sense of total commitment and complete competency.
Now, this may seem like simple auteur theory adoration (and maybe it is), but it’s also a way to segue into discussion of Soderbergh’s latest offering, Logan Lucky, not because it’s one of these lower-tier features—far from it—but because it so efficiently and enjoyably demonstrates Soderbergh’s capacity for narrative advancement, shifting tones, and aesthetic variance, all bound by a solid, seasoned expertise, and all without missing a beat. It’s tempting to use the word “effortless” when describing a film this innately accomplished, but that runs the risk of suggesting a lack of energy, and the movie is teeming with energy. Instead, let’s say Logan Lucky feels natural: meticulous without being insipid, tight without being fixed, mainstream without being artless (in the wake of his 2008 two-parter Che, possibly his best work yet, Soderbergh said he was “done with prestige pictures”). Like Hawks, Soderbergh frequently adopts the starting point of the tried-and-true, but what distinguishes his work is his regular concentration of ingenuity and vitality. As with Logan Lucky, he turns the fundamentally familiar into something quite extraordinary. It’s a movie made by a man who knows how to make a movie, and to make one without pretense, without derision, without deceit, and without anything that would hamper the film as a half-hearted throwaway.
First things first, though, Steven Soderbergh isn’t really returning, because he never really “retired.” Yes, that was the term generally thrown around after his 2013 thriller Side Effects, but in the few years since that release, there has been his Emmy-winning directorial work on the HBO film Behind the Candelabra (2013) and the Emmy-nominated Cinemax series The Knick (2014-15), as well as producing duties on films like Citizenfour (2014) and Magic Mike XXL (2015) and series like The Girlfriend Experience (2016-18). And as is becoming abundantly clear, and Soderbergh was among the first to embrace the concept that being a filmmaker today does not mean working exclusively on film, nor does it mean directing strictly for theatrical exhibition.
In any case, here he is, back on the big screen and back to a genre mold that clearly harks back to Ocean’s Eleven and its offspring (giving one character an offhand “Ocean’s 7-11” quip, Soderbergh acknowledges the obvious parallels to that George Clooney-starring trilogy). Logan Lucky is indeed another heist film (for the most part), this one set in North Carolina and West Virginia, centered around the Coca-Cola 600, a NASCAR race taking place Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Behind the caper are Logan brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), a limping, downtrodden, recently fired miner, and Clyde (Adam Driver), a superstitious bartender and one-handed veteran. Jimmy’s work at the speedway left him privy to the massive complex’s pneumatic cash-flow system, so through a series of dubious associations, he enlists a team that also includes Logan sister Mellie, played by Riley—Elvis’ granddaughter—Keough, and another sibling trio: the bumbling yokels Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) and their elder brother, the esteemed and appropriately named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an “in-car-cer-ate-d” safecracker. Personified foils come by way of devious energy drink peddler Max Chilblain (a goofy, mustachioed Seth MacFarlane) and the prideful, pompous Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam). This being a Steven Soderbergh film, the star inventory doesn’t stop there. Also featured are Katie Holmes as Bobbie Jo Logan Chapman, Jimmy’s ex, Katherine Waterston as Sylvia Harrison, a nurse and former school-mate of Jimmy’s, and Hilary Swank as Special Agent Sarah Grayson, an FBI officer brought in near the end of the picture. There are also about a half-dozen NASCAR cameos (amusingly, not as racecar drivers), and little Farrah Mackenzie stealing her scenes as Jimmy’s precocious daughter Sadie.
The casting of Logan Lucky has been a primary selling point, with Craig in particular (“introduced” in the trailer) standing out for his idiosyncratic, buzz-cut, bleach-blond presentation. But as much as his character is the obvious star oddity, Tatum’s performance is most worthy of praise for how seamlessly he melds with the film’s setting. Soderbergh’s recent male muse (this is their fourth collaboration since Haywire in 2011) has always had an authentic, everyman quality, but his turn here is exceptionally sincere. Driver, the third key player, falls somewhere between these two; he is quirky in the extreme, but perfectly appropriate. Following the burglary, Logan Lucky stalls somewhat, but that suspension is short-lived thanks to the renewed interest and intensity brought by Swank in her brief but memorable role. It’s enough to get the picture back on track until its satisfactory pay-off finish.
Like any good heist film, there are sufficient twists and turns to keep everyone on edge, from this diverse roster of humble working-classers (Jimmy has a “robbery to-do list” that anticipates potential obstacles) to an increasingly seen-it-all-before audience. But what’s curiously wanting with Logan Lucky is the clear-cut motivation for the whole criminal endeavor. Mastermind Jimmy may have lost his job and is subsequently lacking income (Bobbie Jo’s new beau, a comparatively well-off car dealer, adds insult to injury), but such a grandiose remedial scheme seems like a giant leap toward restitution, even if they did initially plan to enact the robbery during a less popular event. They have no deep-pocket financial backing and no high-tech tools of the trade. The why of it all is therefore a little hazy, not quite satisfying, and generally disregarded. Only Sam and Fish, of all people, require some sort of moral impetus.
Otherwise, the motive appears more existential than monetary (though that’s certainly a perk). Abandoned, ignored, or simply perplexed by a progressively modern culture, plagued by cell phones and economically debilitating “preexisting conditions,” Jimmy sees the pilfering as a way to obtain something beyond the perceived limitations of his current condition, a notion augmented by an annotation needle drop of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” an anthem for the disenchanted and disadvantaged. A once-promising football star and high school stud, Jimmy embodies the futile realization of low- to middle-class stagnation. Yet Logan Lucky takes its blue-collar backdrop and presents a cultural context without civic moralizing. Some in the area are prosperous, some aren’t; they don’t make excuses and they’re not looking for sympathy. On the contrary, Soderbergh imparts a subtle, still potent, identification, never doubling down on hackneyed idealism or shallow sentimentality.
In fact, so unassuming is the intrinsic sociological core of Logan Lucky that there are times when Soderbergh and Co. might have a bit too much fun with these redneck types, bordering on affectionate condescension—however accurate the portrayal may be—and surely some audiences will derive self-satisfaction from the quaint hillbilly portrait. But then he devotes a parenthetical segment to the backstory of a certain spotlight racer, one returning from a break and now facing formidable professional expectations (sound familiar?). Played by Sebastian Stan, this driver, Dayton White, gushes about his health regime and dietary routine. He flaunts a lavish house and a collection of sports cars. The whole spiel is so copiously pretentious, one can’t wait to get back to the world of pick-up trucks, the Duck Tape Bar and Grill, and bobbing for pig’s feet. Jimmy and his motley crew are refreshingly real people, easily endearing, subject to regional inadequacies (what kind of man can’t drive a stick shift?), and open to heartfelt reflection. With supplies picked up from the local Lowes, their MacGyver-esque methodology is rudimentary and impulsive, but it’s ingenuous all the same. They evince a surprising proficiency, which would surely have made Hawks proud. The polish and panache of Ocean and his team may represent the criminals an average moviegoer wishes they could be, but the Logan Lucky thieves are the criminals many Americans actually would be.
It’s in this regard that several critics have perhaps unwittingly denigrated Logan Lucky by ethnic pigeonholing. Reviews making a point to situate the film in an ambiguous part of America generalized as “Trump country” promote a designation that is both unfair and unwise. Given the current connotations of the Trump administration, this correlation runs the preliminary danger of tarnishing the underlying decency of these decidedly apolitical personalities, setting up preconceived assumptions and potentially encumbering the film and its characters with a partisan divide. But environment is key with Logan Lucky. Acting again as his own cinematographer (and editor), Soderbergh sustains a knack for creating or capturing an effusive atmosphere, previously enhanced by formal accents, like the color-coded plotlines of Traffic, or muted by unadorned photography, like the roughhewn realism of Bubble (2005). Logan Lucky falls handsomely in the middle, as an attractive picture without overt visual embellishment, but one where the setting has a pronounced importance seen in obvious ways, like the noted provincial elements and the pageantry and thrill of a large-scale sporting event set-piece, but also in the film’s thematic temperament. The area does define these localized characters (how many times do the words “across state lines” signify something unpleasant?). Repeated John Denver songs aren’t just homespun country tunes, they are genuine expressions of deep, emotional poignancy, often with a geographic resonance.
Helping to develop this distinguished location is Logan Lucky writer (as credits tell us anyway) Rebecca Blunt, an apparent newcomer to the screenwriting trade, though more likely a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife, Jules Asner. (There is also speculation it is Soderbergh himself, though the most tantalizing suggestion is it’s actually former Talk Soup host John Henson, a friend of Asner’s, who, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is “said to have been working on a screenplay with Soderbergh a few years ago that harkened similar themes as Logan Lucky.”) Whoever fashioned the script, it’s a perfect fit for Soderbergh. Pushing two hours in length, the film hums along at a brisk pace, with just the right balance of requisite verbalized planning, character perspective, action, and a hearty dose of humor (comic recesses include elaborate dioramas, impromptu equations chalked on the wall, and a hilarious nod to Game of Thrones). Engaging an impressive variety of camera set-ups, movements, and visual punctuations, Soderbergh, an impeccable visual storyteller, keeps these multilayered dynamics comfortably and judiciously at play. The narrative teases indirect, incongruous details, only to have those cavalier inclusions return with an expository clarity. This is partly why Soderbergh handles intricate crime scenarios so well; he possesses a comparable precision and a steadfast attention to one overarching design. Soderbergh’s unique distribution of Logan Lucky—in short, an arrangement made with Bleecker Street Media, via deals with nontheatrical entities like Amazon—left him with approval over every facet of production and a relatively low profit expectancy. It’s a boon to his quest for creative control (no doubt put to the test with his next film, the iPhone-shot Unsane, due out next year).
Call it a return, call it a continuation, Logan Lucky is the 54-year-old Soderbergh doing what he does so well. In that Positif interview, he continued, “When you talk about Hawks or Huston or [William] Wyler, they were never fashionable or hip or trendy or prone to fads. That’s the career I would like. I’m not a visionary.” That he isn’t a visionary is debatable, but at the very least, Soderbergh has yet to disappoint on the basis of sheer novelty and technique. He remains one of the most dependable, creative, and exciting filmmakers. Returning to the Howard Hawks comparison, Logan Lucky shows Soderbergh operating modestly with optimum skill, recalling John Wayne’s line from Rio Bravo (1959): “I’d say he’s so good, he doesn’t feel he has to prove it.”