First off, Logan Lucky isn’t a sequel to Logan; you won’t find any X-Men here. It is, however, the welcome return to filmmaking by Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar winner who publicly retired from directing four years ago after Side Effects. Like the best of his movies, this heist film retains its essential shagginess despite the A-list stars headlining it, and it reminds us what a nifty flair the director has for light entertainment.
Channing Tatum stars as Jimmy Logan, a former mine worker in West Virginia who has found employment patching up sinkholes underneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway, until his employer finds out about the knee injury that ended his football career and terminates him as an insurance liability. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq war veteran missing the lower half of his left arm, thinks is part of the curse that has afflicted the family with bad luck, but Jimmy can’t be so blasé when his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is planning to move to the next state and take their young daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) with her. Since he knows the location of the money tubes that lead from the race track’s cash registers to its vault, he decides to rob the vault on one of the venue’s most lucrative days: the running of the Coca-Cola 600.
The comparison to Soderbergh’s heist movie Ocean’s 11 is so obvious that this movie itself makes it. Here, he and screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (who may or may not exist) are less interested in the thieves’ personalities than in the procedures that go into the robbery. These uneducated Southern folks are quite ingenious when it comes to pulling off such a high-profile heist on a limited budget, using things like Gummi Bears to make an explosive device and cockroaches painted with nail polish to find out which of the tubes they need to crack open. Much of the plot hinges on breaking two prisoners out of a prison, getting them to the race, and then breaking them back in afterwards. Not everything works: The subplot with a high-maintenance NASCAR driver (Sebastian Stan) is a dead end, and the bit where Jimmy’s daughter sings “Take Me Home Country Roads” at a girls’ beauty pageant is a miss. Still, the scruffiness yields a great set piece: a prison riot where the inmates fall into a discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and bitch about George R.R. Martin’s slow writing process.
The biggest thing I missed about Soderbergh was his offbeat use of actors, but it’s back in full force here: Riley Keough as the Logans’ sister who’s nerdy about traffic patterns (a handy obsession for a getaway driver to have), Seth MacFarlane as a boorish British racing sponsor, Dwight Yoakam as a venal prison warden, Hilary Swank coming on late as an FBI agent mopping up after the robbery. I could have done with more energy from Tatum, but Driver has a funny habit of overenunciating his lines when Clyde is pissed at something. The happiest surprise by far is Daniel Craig as an imprisoned, white-haired safecracker who speaks in a high-pitched redneck twang. Craig is a delight as he gleefully gets naked in front of the Logans and stops in the middle of the heist to give the brothers a chemistry lesson, complete with written-out formulas. It’s hard to imagine any of the previous actors who played James Bond carrying off a character like this. Maybe it’s damning with faint praise to call this Craig’s funniest performance ever, but he does actually look like he’s having fun here. NASCAR fans will want to check the background for Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano’s cameos as cops and security guards.
All this makes Logan Lucky as refreshing as a cold beer on a hot summer day. Jimmy voluntarily winds up taking home a good deal less of the money than he took from the vault, and that seems to encapsulate this film’s triumph: something that doesn’t add up to as much as it seems, but sends you home satisfied.
Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Rebecca Blunt. Rated PG-13.