Logan Lucky

August 18, 2017
Meet the Logans
Meet the Logans

Steven Soderbergh is one of Hollywood’s mavericks and one of its great professionals. A certain percentage of his films might be termed arthouse projects, while others embrace the mainstream, leaping from genre to genre with the enthusiasm of a life-long student of the cinema.

It’s almost as if Soderbergh becomes wary of his own artistic pretentions and feels the need to retreat to a simpler form of entertainment. Having had his fill, he ventures another experiment. Or maybe it’s just a matter of balancing the income generated by box office success against the kudos of cult status.

Logan Lucky, his first movie in four years, explores a new model in film distribution with which Soderbergh hopes to break the stanglehold of the big studios. Made for a relatively modest US$29 million, the movie is being distributed by a small, independent company, with the director exercising control over advertising and marketing. Streaming rights have been pre-sold to Amazon, raising the necessary capital.

In 2013 Soderbergh was so pissed off with the studio system he announced he would make no more features. He has returned with a strategy that has allowed him to keep one hand on every aspect of the filmmaking process. He aims to reduce the huge expenses of marketing and distribution and increase returns for all involved.

Naturally the success of this plan owes a debt to the experience and reputation of the director, and the participation of an all-star cast working for standard rates and a share of profits. Early indications suggest he’s going to have a hit.

Soderbergh’s biggest-ever box office came with a heist film, Oceans 11 (2001), which spawned two sequels. In Logan Lucky he returns to the heist genre, but with a significant twist. In place of the sharp suits and sophisticated settings of the previous films, this story unfolds in West Virginia, the heart of down-at-heel, redneck Middle America.

The chief protagonists are two brothers and a sister from a family renowned for its bad luck. The film begins with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) being sacked from his construction job because of a limp he failed to declare. The bad leg is a legacy of his service in Iraq.

His brother, Clyde (a deadpan Adam Driver), lost an arm in Iraq, and now works as a bartender. Their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough) is a hairdresser with a Tom boy knowledge of all things automotive.

Jimmy’s marriage broke down years ago, and he lives alone in a shack. His ex-wife (Katie Holmes) has married a car dealer, and has custody of their daughter. This backstory is secondary to the main plot, but important in the way it fleshes out the characters.

Rejected by the workplace, Jimmy decides his best economic option is to stage a major robbery at a NASCAR event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, where he’s been employed on construction and knows where the money is kept. In the context of this story it seems a perfectly logical decision.

There is only one man who can be trusted to blow a bank vault – a borderline psycho with a peroxide buzz cut named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, believe it or not), and he’s in the slammer. This necessitates a scheme to get Joe out of prison and back on the same day. It also drags in his two dopey brothers, who are lowbrows even by hillbilly standards.

There’s a subplot with a loud-mouthed English race car tycoon (Seth MacFarlane), and other refinements, but I can’t hope to explain all the twists and turns of this story. Inevitably a lot of things go wrong on the day of the heist, providing the necessaries for a fast-moving comedy.

This is a humorous but affectionate portrait of a tribe of US working-class provincials that never stray far from home, who only go abroad if they join the army, and are soon forgotten if they come back minus a limb. It’s a world of cars, sports and junior talent quests. It’s a picture of a hopelessly stratified society, where the only way to make money is to turn to crime.

Almost everything Soderbergh does gives the impression it could have been done better, but he is still streets ahead of the vast majority of American filmmakers. Like so many of his movies, Logan Lucky feels hastily but surely constructed. The story goes off in several different directions and occasionally becomes confusing. Yet details that impede the smooth forward motion of the plot only add to its broader appeal.

One of the most memorable scenes features Jimmy’s daughter, dressed in junior Beyonce regalia, singing a shrill version of John Denver’s Country Roads to a hall full of people who gradually join in and sing along. This is exactly the kind of sentimental interlude that might have been left on the cutting room floor had Soderbergh not been able to make the movie exactly as he pleased. It says more about America today than all the action scenes combined.

Logan Lucky
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Rebecca Blunt
Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, Dwight Yoakam
USA rated M, 119 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 August, 2017