T he Logan brothers list their family’s dismal relationship to luck, ticking through some of the calamities that have befallen the clan. One piece of evidence is “Uncle Stickley’s electrocution,” a colorful citation. Who was this Uncle Stickley? How did he get electrocuted? Why was he named Stickley? These questions remain unanswered and Uncle Stickley is never referred to again. Part of the pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is its flair for throwaway lines and little character beats. This movie does not aspire to greatness or significance; being extremely clever and thoroughly competent is the goal here.
The film borrows the shape of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series in its devotion to the old formula of the heist picture. But the setting is the opposite: Instead of sophisticated thieves plotting to knock over a Las Vegas casino, the conspirators here are a bumbling collection of blue-collar West Virginians whose dubious plan is to rob Charlotte Motor Raceway during a NASCAR event. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is an unemployed divorced dad, a former local-football hotshot who blew out a knee years ago. His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lost an arm in Iraq—really just a hand, as he likes to point out—and tends bar with singled-limbed efficiency. Their big racetrack brainstorm hinges on breaking a safecracker, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, white-haired and tattooed), out of jail long enough to pull the job. And then breaking him back in.
The fun of a heist film is the planning and execution, which generally do not stay the same. Why, for instance, does the Logan brothers’ sister Mellie (Riley Keough from American Honey) appear to be painting cockroaches? No explanation is offered during the planning, but all will be revealed once the theft unfolds. Soderbergh being Soderbergh, the aftermath of the racetrack robbery takes some unexpected twists on the formula, including the amusing touch of introducing an entirely new character, played by an Oscar-winning star, in the final 20 minutes. That would be Hilary Swank, as an FBI agent, doing a dead-on impersonation of her Million Dollar Baby director Clint Eastwood—because this is the kind of movie where you can do stuff like that. All the actors radiate delight, even when they go very, very broad. So many ham-fried Southern accents fly around that it’s a relief when someone underplays—thus the welcome scenes for Katherine Waterston (from Alien: Covenant) as a nurse giving Jimmy a tetanus shot (long story).
The cast includes Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson as Joe Bang’s born-again swamp-rat sons, Dwight Yoakam as a prison warden, Katie Holmes as Jimmy’s ex-wife, and a near-unrecognizable Seth MacFarlane as an obnoxious British race-car owner. Soderbergh knows the worth of the well-placed character part, and it’s not surprising that he gets good people to show up for very small roles. He also appreciates the value of a running joke, and once Clyde’s prosthetic arm is introduced, the appendage takes on a supporting role of its own.
One measurement of a good comedy is the way ordinary lines of dialogue can detonate within conversations. Joe Bang’s “What part of Florida?” is one such example: as bland a line as can be, but slyly hilarious in context. The Logan Lucky script is credited to Rebecca Blunt, alleged to be a pseudonym for a first-time writer, although Soderbergh is being coy about identifying the scribe. As for the director, his retirement from directing movies in 2013 is hereby voided, but given his frequent work in television since then (especially his now-canceled series The Knick), that declaration always seemed a little shaky. This is good news, even if it means Soderbergh will spend his energy on mid-level larks like Logan Lucky. Earlier in his career one might have looked to Soderbergh to aim higher than a ’70s-style caper film that could have been a vehicle for Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed, but if you’re going to make that kind of movie, this is exactly the way you want to make it. Logan Lucky, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Aug. 18 at various theaters.