‘Logan Lucky’ and the Glorious Return of Steven Soderbergh

The 'Ocean's 11' director's latest is a sharp, pleasurable reminder of what he does so well.

Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky opens with a charming scene that finds Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) fixing his truck with the help of his daughter Sadie (Farrah McKenzie). They’re listening to his favorite artist, John Denver – never would’ve predicted 2017 was going to be the summer of Denver, but between this and Okja and Alien: Covenant, well, here we are – and he tells her the colorful backstory of how the song they’re listening to came to be. She asks if that’s why he likes it so much. “I like the song because of the song,” he replies. “I mean, I guess I also like it because there’s a story behind it.” And that’s a pretty accurate assessment of Logan Lucky, which is worth celebrating because it marks Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking, after a self-imposed four-year sabbatical. But I also like the movie because of the movie, which would be a fabulously funny and endlessly entertaining summer treat no matter who was making it – though it’s hard to imagine anyone making it as well as Soderbergh.

Once upon a time, Jimmy Logan was “supposed to be a big deal,” but trouble’s raining down on him these days – he’s got a bum knee, he lost his job on account of it (“for liability reasons due to insurance”), his ex-wife is moving his daughter away, and he’s broke as hell. Logan Lucky is set in West Virginia and North Carolina, and it’s full of little background touches of near-poverty that ring true – the rust spots on his truck, the dire furnishings of the homes, and so on. The post-recession economic concerns of Magic Mike made it more than “just” a male stripper movie; Logan Lucky is filled with the kind of “white working class” folks that we’re told swung this election, complete with occasional references to how Jimmy and his brother Clyde (Adam Driver, doing a Tim Blake Nelson dialect) “used to work the mines.”

But the script, by Rebecca Blunt (who is, rumor has it, Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner, writing under a pseudonym) isn’t explicitly tied to such potentially of-the-moment concerns. Its characters are the kind of folks who’ve been overlooked for decades (there are several mentions of their bad water, on account of a chemical leak), and we can all identify with the feeling Jimmy has as he stands in the door of his ex-wife’s home, clobbered by all the day-to-day parenting he just doesn’t have a say in, or the sense of busted dreams that resurface when someone casually says something like, “He was gonna be hot shit.”

But then Jimmy gets an idea. The job he lost was on a crew repairing sinkholes at the Charlotte Motor Speedway; while he was there, he found out where the vault is, and how the money gets there. Thus, we have the ingredients for a classic heist movie, with rural counterparts for all the traditional types: the ringleader, the sidekick, the sharp girl, the computer whiz, the muscle, and the safe cracker. Oh, except the latter, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), is currently incarcerated. So they’ll have to do a jailbreak and a heist.

Blunt’s script boasts a fair amount of goofy hillbilly humor (“I looked it up on the Google”) and regional flavor; when told his brother’s wife ran off with “some trucker from Florida,” Joe Bang asks (after a perfectly timed beat) “What. Part. Of Florida.” But the film (mostly) successfully tiptoes on this side of laughing-with, rather than laughing-at, with bits that are broad, but not insulting; it’s like the characters from a Coen brothers script wandered into a Soderbergh movie.

And, as usual, he lets his actors shine – chief among them Tatum, marking his fourth collaboration with Soderbergh (fifth, if you count Magic Mike XXL), who remains the director who bests brings out the actor’s natural warmth and charm. Driver gets a laugh every time he talks, and understands that the key to that is to hone in on the character’s quiet dignity, no matter what trials and tribulations are inflected upon him. The supporting players are also solid: Seth MacFalane, typecast as a smug asshole; the hilariously obstinate Dwight Yoakam as a stubborn prison warden; Craig, clearly having way more fun than he’s ever allowed as Bond; and most of all, Riley Keough (so good in the television adaptation of Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience) in a true movie-star turn: tough, funny, sexy, the works.

But the real star of the movie (for those who care, at least) is Soderbergh. He again serves as his own director of photography, retaining his keen sense of composition; no director, and frankly few cinematographers, more reliably finds the most interesting way to frame action. And his editing is as crisp as ever, orchestrating the tempo of the run-up, the job, and the aftermath like the conductor of a jug-band orchestra. He adopts angles and finds moments that just don’t occur to other filmmakers (my favorite may be the odd little montage of people sleeping after the heist, everyone having a good rest after a hard day’s work). As ever, he loves to tease us with the little unexplained pieces of the heist, props and oblique references and the like — not giving them away, but providing a little jolt of pleasure and recognition when they come into play. And he fucks with us, here and there, making it look like things are going wrong that are, in fact, all part of the plan.

Logan Lucky has the style and energy of his Ocean’s movies, and even some of the same personnel (including, thank all that is holy, whiz-bang composer David Holmes). He even indulges himself in a winking reference to that trilogy, with a woman on a background TV noting, “I heard that they’re callin’ it Ocean’s 7-11.” But he’s not just going through his paces. There’s a wonderful, atypical pause mid-robbery, so the crew can have a necessary discussion regarding the morality of the job. And there’s the arrival of Hilary Swank (as an investigating agent) well after, indicating there’s more movie than usual – with our ostensible star, Tatum, straight-up disappearing for a good chunk of it.

But for this viewer, what separates Logan from its most obvious predecessor is a scene near the three-quarters mark. Jimmy’s daughter is competing in a beauty pageant, and that event is providing him his alibi. But since this is a movie, he appears at the back door just in time to hear her song; we know this cliché, and the movie knows we know, and what happens after that, hand on the Bible, moved me to tears. In that moment, Soderbergh’s latest achieves an emotional resonance that the Ocean’s pictures, for all their virtues, never even reached for. It’s just one moment, and it’s over quickly, but it lands.

Elsewhere, Logan Lucky is the cinematic equivalent of that ubiquitous musical descriptor, the “perfect summer jam” – it’s poppy and pleasurable, and by the time of the big jailbreak, I was all but vibrating with joy. Nobody makes a good-time movie like Steven Soderbergh. It’s wonderful to have him back.

“Logan Lucky” is out Friday.