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Logan Lucky: Southern charm suffuses Steven Soderbergh’s stylistic return

With undertows about current America, Steven Soderbergh employs a charming, unsophisticated dash of good-ol'-boy characters to deliver the eccentric comic caper Logan Lucky.

“I'll be the first person to say if I can't be any good at it and run out of money, I'll be back making another Ocean's movie.”—that’s how Steven Soderbergh announced his “retirement” from directing theatrical films to pursue painting. Disillusioned with the studio system, he turned to TV and has been going strong with artful exercises (The Girlfriend Experience, The Knick). Now, after a four-year hiatus, this prolific director returned with another heist movie—but not in the same urbane vein as most of the crime caper pictures he’s made.

Set in North Carolina and West Virginia, Logan Lucky tells of a blue-collar heist, naturally without the glamor and wisecracking of Danny Ocean and partners. A reporter even calls the gang of main characters “Ocean's Seven-Eleven.” These are hillbillies operating in a close-knit social circle—devoid of the stereotypical obnoxiousness—with their redneck accent, Southern living conditions, and a handmade cardboard map to lay out the plan. The movie starts with Jimmy Logan (a stout Channing Tatum) fixing his truck. As his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) helps him with the tools, he recounts the background of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads.” While Jimmy loves the song, Sadie is preparing to perform “Umbrella” at her school’s pageant. But sooner than she thinks, the girl will learn to appreciate the bond with her homeland.

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Jimmy, a former football player who retired due to an injury, is working his daily construction job before fired because his “pre-existing condition” is a liability. It turns out the Logan family is said to be cursed with bad luck, and the misfortune has more for Jimmy. His ex-wife Bobbie Jo (a too-tanned Katie Holmes), who re-marries to a salesman named Moody (David Denman), tells Jimmy that they are moving to Lynchburg. Sadie, the precious love of Jimmy, will be across the state border.

Next, we know more about that curse with the sulky, slow-talking Clyde (Adam Driver), Jimmy’s younger brother. This Iraq veteran lost his left arm—sorry, left hand—in an accident and now works at his bar, Duck Tape. His impressive drink-mixing technique attracts an arrogant sports drink mogul, Max Chilblain—Seth MacFarlane is unmemorable under the makeup. Unluckily, Max’s daft and disrespectful comment on the Logans gets Jimmy and Clyde into a fight. This ruckus is the last nonsense Jimmy takes from The Man, as Clyde realizes his big brother just shouts “Cauliflower!” It’s the word Jimmy used to announce his shenanigans when the boys were just boys. Now, it means a robbery.

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Taking advantage of the knowledge he gains during working under the NASCAR Motor Speedway, Jimmy conceives an elaborate heist during the Coca-Cola 600 race day. First, he knows how to access the capsule pipelines, also known as the cash highway to the bank. The race day itself presents latent advantages; seismic measurement is off and security is thin. Blowing up the vault is just a walk in an underground park, except they don’t have a demolition expert. Yet.

Jimmy’s plan keeps getting zanier as he seeks aid from Joe Bang (blond Daniel Craig in a buzz cut). This incarcerated criminal isn’t your usual demolitionist—but a virtuosic chemist with his ridiculously special formula. Joe accepts the offer with one condition: Jimmy must enlist his two crude, dim-witted brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid). The tricky part here is to break Joe out of jail for the heist and return him in time with no one noticing. As expected, the Logans only let the Bangs know what they need to, and vice versa.

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Their adversary is a faceless collective of the materialistic and consumeristic vacuum that sucks prosperity out of Southern towns. Despite personal stakes, the ploy seldom meets an antagonistic force to play out any kind of evocative confrontation. Whereas the lack of a presence (like the cash owner) might irritate many viewers, this innovative point of the movie is devised to thematically highlight the protagonists. It leads to an unexpected third act that looks almost like a drawn-out prologue as Jimmy patiently maneuvers through the intervention of law enforcement.

Logan Lucky never forgets its theme about the pride of a traditional West Virginia, a region associated with bigotry in American pop culture. The first-time writer, Rebecca Blunt—this name might be another pseudonym for Soderbergh—never exploits it for easy laughs. Instead, “she” stays true to the premise and its unique features. The first half moves at a breezy pace for the audience to absorb the situation of these downtrodden Logans as well as their backgrounds and personalities.

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Characters are all upraised by deadpan humor through oddball dialogue and mesmerizing acumen by the quirky cast. Tatum, who co-produced the movie, has been ripening over the past few years to a wide range of temperaments. The actor’s easygoing expressions instill Jimmy with sincere warmth when he’s with his relatives (especially Sadie) and steadfastness when dealing with snags. As Clyde, Driver—with his rough voice and brooding appearance—emanates the repressed aggression of an ex-serviceman stuck with a disability. There’s also Jimmy and Clyde’s little sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), who works her daytime job at a hair salon. With a weird hobby of painting cockroaches with nail polish, she enters the plan a little late, but this badass getaway driver involves much much more than she appears to be. Far from the bubbly girl archetype, Keogh spruces up this speed demon with unflinching dexterity and ardent playfulness. Still, the most impressive performance comes from Craig, in his extraordinary deviation from the debonair James Bond. The British actor is so beastly, confident, and effortlessly controlled as Joe Bang. He, together with Tatum and Driver, makes the negotiation scene droll and charming.

The supporting cast is uniformly and strikingly well-rounded. Musician Dwight Yoakam is entertaining as the prideful Chief Warden; Sebastian Stan plays NASCAR racer Dayton White with dreamy poise; Katherine Waterston is Sylvia, a clinic worker whose sweet and flirtatious talk with Jimmy gives him a romance to look forward to; and Hillary Swank turns up in a cameo as the FBI agent chasing after Jimmy’s ingenious ploy.

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Because heist movies are more fun when viewers know little about the procedural infiltration of footwork soldiers (i.e. the Bang brothers), the script focuses on other details to bring out the excellent idiosyncrasy of early Quentin Tarantino heist films. Game of Thrones followers will grin before bursting out in laughter when watching the memorable subplot about a prison "riot" in Monroe. This hilarious takeover offers an amusing in-joke for fans of George R. R. Martin and his acclaimed HBO series.

The substance of Logan Lucky leaps across many stages of preparation, and this progress stays comprehensible with an immediate explanation for any questionable bit. Like Jimmy’s ten-step to-do list pinned on his kitchen wall, the coherent plot weaves separate threads into a large fabric. Despite obstacles, which open for comic tidbits, Jimmy maintains control of the heist, and viewers aren’t left bewildered (before the third act).

Soderbergh, credited as cinematographer Peter Andrews, frames meticulous shots that flatter characters. To denote the shifting scale during negotiations, his camera often jumps across the eye line. Accompanied by David Holmes' funky soundtrack, fast edits by Mary Ann Bernard (yes, it’s still Soderbergh) are smooth between scenes using audio-based transitions (his J- and L-cuts). But unlike his trademark straight-to-the-confrontation style, Logan Lucky has more establishing shots to impose on viewers the contrast between the race and Clyde’s bar. It’s consumerism vs. water contamination and a stagnant economy.

In Jimmy’s list, there’s a meta self-reminder from Soderbergh about stopping at the right time. Logan Lucky is the evidence that Soderbergh still has stories to satisfy cinephiles, and he shouldn’t stop yet. With social undertows about current America (the American flag appears as Jimmy's underpants and LeAnn Rimes sings the National Anthem), Soderbergh employs a charming, unsophisticated dash of good-ol'-boy characters to deliver an eccentric comic caper.