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LOGAN LUCKY (2017) review

August 26, 2017

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written by: Rebecca Blunt
produced by: Gregory Jacobs, Mark Johnson, Channing Tatum & Reid Carolin
directed by: Steven Soderbergh
rated: PG-13 (for language and some crude comments)
runtime: 119 min.
U.S. release date: August 18, 2017

 

I never believed him nor did I want to. In 2013, when writer/director Steven Soderbergh released two full-length features – “Side Effects” theatrically and “Behind the Candelabra” on HBO – he also announced his retirement from filmmaking. Considering this is a filmmaker who’s been known to release two films in one year, showing himself to be a passionate and prolific storyteller, I chose not to believe such an announcement. I assume frustration with theatrical distribution models factored in his retirement, which is understandable since big studios are intent on backing established brands. However, none of that prevented Soderbergh from working since he went on to direct all twenty episodes of the acclaimed Cinemax series “The Knick” and now there’s the theatrical release “Logan Lucky”, which finds the director returning to the heist comedy, a subgenre he knows quite well. It’s a feature that has more in common with “Out of Sight” in tone and style than his three “Oceans” movies and it’s one of the funniest movies of the year.

Recently laid off from a gig filling sinkholes in Boone County, West Virginia, on account of his bum leg that HR feels could cause liability issues, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is now looking for a way to afford a lawyer (not to mention alimony) in order to ensure his ex-wife, Bobby Jo (Katie Holmes) and her car dealer husband (David Denman) doesn’t move to Lynchburg, Virginia with his precocious daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). He taps his one-armed, Iraq war veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who tends bar at a nearby, and convinces him to go in with him on a heist he’s cooking up that involves the theft of vendor cash from the NASCAR race by way of a pneumatic tube cash delivery system at the Speedway (in a hard-to-believe-that-system-exists scenario), employing their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough) as their wheelwoman.

 

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To pull off the heist during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600 race Coca-Cola 600, they’ll need a demolitions expert, but the guy Jimmy has in mind, Joe Bang (a scene-stealing Daniel Craig), is closing out a prison sentence. With the help of Bang’s brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), the Logan siblings find a way to sneak Joe out for the heist and as they implement their plans, they run into characters like Jimmy’s former high school classmate Sylvia (Katherine Waterston, all too brief), a nurse who runs a free mobile clinic and top race driver Dayton (Sebastian Stan), who’s trying to stay focused despite the presence of Max (a ridiculous Seth MacFarlane in his most tolerable role yet), his loudmouth sponsor.

What stands out immediately in this comedy are the characters and the attention and detail given to their characterization, something that’s rare in modern-day comedies. Written by Rebecca Blunt, a supposed “first-time screenwriter” (my hunch is she’s a pysedonym for Soderbergh, who probably has his reasons for anonymity, but then again IMDb shows he also used other names under editor and cinematographer – so, maybe he’s just trying to throw us off altogether), “Logan Lucky” has great humor, eliciting knowing chuckles and laugh-out-loud moments – it’s an absolute hoot throughout. It’s also a fun time and a reminder how fun it is to watch actors having fun with their roles. But again, it’s the characters that hooked me right from the start and remain with me long after viewing.

In the opening scene, Jimmy can be seen working on some repairs under the hood of his pick-up, while his adorable daughter sits nearby ready with the specific tools he asks for. She’s excited for an upcoming beauty pageant she’s rehearsing for, while he’s balancing being attentive and preoccupied – the life of a parent. It’s a straightforward and sweet opener, reminding me of the days I used to sit and watch my own father work on his car and how I’d always get wrong what wrench he’d want. It also reminded me how rare it is to see a movie start like this, finding a filmmaker intent on simply showing not just who we’ll be following, but also what the most crucial and motivating relationship in the movie will be. Soderbergh cares more about setting up characters than he is establishing some villain, nefarious scenario or insurmountable odds our heroes will be going up against.

 

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It’s an opening that definitely hooked me and found me settled and anticipating what was to come in “Logan Lucky” and it didn’t take long for me to find myself caring less about the plot and more about the the colorful characters Soderbergh introduces throughout. This is a heist movie free from the Vegas glitz of the “Ocean’s” movies, it’s also not as snappy and fast-paced as those movies are, which is why I liken it more to the other heist movie from the director, “Out of Sight”, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel and my favorite Soderbergh film. There’s a focus on characters who are kind of “down and out” here, just like in “Out of Sight”. In both movies there are cons and criminals – some are incarcerated, in “Logan Lucky” prisoners wear black-and-white onesies (playing up the cartoon feel of the movie) instead of bright orange jumpsuits – and others who lie somewhere in-between who know their way around the law, yet have their fair share of mess-ups along with lucky victories.

“Out of Sight” may have a pulpy noir feel to it, but I’d say “Lucky Logan” has its own Kentucky-fried noir vibe just the same. Both movies are more grounded in tone and genre conventions than the “Ocean’s” movies and because of that I find them more interesting. What makes this movie standout though are the performances that Soderbergh gets out of his assembly of actors. We expect Clooney and Lopez to spark chemistry, but here we have a father-and-daughter, Tatum and Mackenzie – not a heterosexual couple – catching our attention and working off each other in such a charming way. Their connection is obvious and revealing, supplying Tatum’s Jimmy with ample motivation and providing viewers with an understanding as to why Sadie decides to belt out John Denver’s “Country Road, Take Me Home” instead of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” during her stage performance at the end of the movie.

(NOTE: If you’re keeping track of the use of John Denver music in the movies of 2017, this is the second time “Country Road” was used this summer. It was previously used in “Alien: Covenant” of all places and his songs, “This Old Guitar” and “Annie’s Song” were both used in the crime flick “Free Fire”. In that movie, a Credence Clearwater Revival song “Run Through the Jungle” was used, which could also be found in “Kong: Skull Island”. Unsurprisingly, another Credence songs, “Fortunate Son”,  is used here, which got under my skin since that’s probably the most overused John Fogerty song ever. So, I guess Denver and Fogerty are both prevalent on the soundtracks of 2017 for some reason)

Soderbergh and Blunt (I’ll go along with it) could’ve easily made fun of how “poor West Virginians” are viewed, presenting hillbillies and rednecks as dim bulbs or racists, but he has an affinity for the people that inhabit “Logan Lucky”. Sure, the Logan and Bang siblings convey their share of knucklehead charm, but they’re not dummies (well, maybe Fish and Sam are), but they’re also not as emphasized as the comedy relief you might expect them to be. Soderbergh treats them like real people, not mocking their accents or playing up audience expectations of certain Southern mentalities and dispositions.

 

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As far as heists go, there is both a clever and ridiculous scenario in “Logan Lucky” that you’d do best to just smirk and go along with it all. One should appreciate how Soderbergh doesn’t include the kind of traditional montage that explains how the heist will go down, like he did so well in the “Ocean’s” movies. Instead, there’s just a handwritten to-do list that Jimmy posts on the fridge to alert his brother Clyde what his plans are. We learn how the both sets of brothers plan on implementing their heist as they go about it, not before, and it cutting right to how it all plays out is much more immersive than hearing what the plans are.

Sure, the Speedway heist in the middle keeps things buzzing, but again it’s the characterization that makes this “Logan Lucky” hum along at such an infectious melody. I wouldn’t necessarily call it depth, but there’s a surprising amount of humanity to many of these characters, certainly Jimmy who’s trying to get a handle on maintaining a relationship with his daughter and also Clyde who’s got it in his head that there may be luck in his brother’s big score that could possibly break what he sees as the “Logan Family Curse”. As Joe Bang, Craig has a layered specificity to him, rustling behind his platinum blonde do that make his wily blue eyes pop. He and Driver have the most pronounced accents (possibly exaggerated, yet entertainingly so), but man is it fun to hear both of them respond in the interactions their characters have, be it either with goofy expressions or with hilarious zingers.

I guess it’s the present goofiness and tomfoolery that Soderbergh presents that I embraced the most. It’s mostly situational and specific to the behaviors of the characters in “Logan Lucky”, instead of just a comedy that plays for laughs, but there are definitely moments where Soderbergh craftily slides in some knowing winks and nudges. One example is during a standoff between convicts covering for Joe’s absence and their warden (played by the welcome Dwight Yoakam), all of whom refuse to acknowledge any trouble going on outside prison walls. They ask for access to the books that continue the “Game of Thrones” series, instead of any typical demands, refusing to believe the warden when he tells them the books haven’t been released yet and how the television show is doing its own thing, apart from the books. It’s hilarious and unexpected fun.

In the movie’s third act, we’re introduced to two FBI agents who are brought in once the Speedway operation hits the news and goes public. The inclusion of the steely-eyed Agent Sarah Grayson (a straight-faced Hilary Swank) and her wide-eyed partner (Macon Blair) surprisingly make the movie an overall richer experience, rather than add an eye-rolling law enforcement element. The fact that we don’t get to spend that much time with these two make them all the more interesting.

“Logan Lucky” knows its absurd and goofy, but it also has heart and distinctive characters that shine, rather than annoy. There’s a line in in the movie where media refer to the heist as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”, which is a knowing wink that’s suitably sums up what we have here. I’ve been anticipating “Logan Lucky” since it was announced, hoping it would be a late summer surprise or at the very least a reassurance that Soderbergh need not announce his retirement every again.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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