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Of heists and hillbillies - ‘Logan Lucky’

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Soderbergh’s cinematic return well worth the wait

When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking a few years ago, most of us assumed that we could put scare quotes around the word. It was unfathomable that such a gifted and eclectic filmmaker would simply walk away when he seemingly had so much left in his creative tank.

After the 2013 double of “Side Effects” and the HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” Soderbergh’s directorial work consisted solely of two seasons of his Cinemax series “The Knick.” Great stuff – just not movies.

Happily, Hollywood’s favorite pop auteur is back in the driver’s seat with “Logan Lucky,” a hillbilly heist movie featuring that classic Soderbergh combo of stylish aesthetic, engaging narrative and A-list cast. It’s sharp, clever and a hell of a lot of fun – a genre elevation that fits nicely into the Soderberghian oeuvre.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, “Hail, Caesar!”) is a down-on-his-luck former football star living in West Virginia. He’s got a good relationship with his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie, “Amanda McKay”), but not so much with her mom Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes, “All We Had”), who has married a well-to-do car dealer named Moody (David Denman, “Power Rangers”).

Jimmy’s brother Clyde (Adam Driver, “Silence”) lost an arm in Afghanistan and currently tends bar at one of the local watering holes; he’s obsessed with the idea that there’s a curse on the family. Their sister Mellie (Riley Keogh, “It Comes at Night”) is a hair stylist in town.

Jimmy loses his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, then immediately finds out that Bobbie Jo and Moody are moving out of state. He wants to fight to keep his daughter close, but he hasn’t got the money.

So he hatches a plan – he’s going to rob the Speedway during one of their quieter weekends.

He enlists his siblings, but he needs more specialized help. That’s where Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, “Spectre”) comes in – he’s in prison for exactly the sort of heist that the Logans are looking to pull off. Jimmy and Clyde visit him and lay it out; Joe agrees with the caveat that his brothers Fish (Jack Quaid, TV’s “Vinyl”) and Sam (Brian Gleeson, “Assassin’s Creed”) be brought in.

It’s all well and good – right up until Jimmy gets wind of information that forces them to push their plan up a week. So instead of a relatively sleepy weekend, Jimmy and company are going to hit the Speedway on its busiest day of the year: the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race.

The Logans and the Fishes are left to do what they can to pull off the impossible, but even if they can – what happens next?

Synopsizing the heist doesn’t do anyone any favors – suffice it to say that it is a foundational piece of the narrative rendered in a way that will ring very familiar to fans of Soderbergh’s work. It’s an absolute delight to watch as it unfolds. Really, it’s one of Soderbergh’s greatest gifts, finding ways to bring together multiple moving parts in a manner that is easy to follow and fun to watch.

And make no mistake – “Logan Lucky” is a heist movie. Yes, Soderbergh has done this before – brilliantly – with “Ocean’s Eleven.” But while this new offering bears some superficial similarities (even going so far as to tip a sly self-referential wink or two along the way) and carries the same spirited glee, it is very much its own movie.

The cast is exceptional – no surprise there. Tatum is at his absolute best when Soderbergh is guiding him; he’s as good here as he has ever been. He’s funny and sensitive, a dim-witted façade masking an inherent cleverness. Driver’s drawling take on Clyde is a delight to watch, with a deliberate slowness that serves as a perfect underpinning to the escalating, frenetic pacing. Keough gives Mellie a sharp tongue and sharper wit; she’s sharp and compelling to watch. And Daniel Craig is dynamite as Joe Bang, an absolute delight. He gives the impression of having as much fun as he’s ever had on screen.

The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Quaid and Gleeson – both sons of well-known actors – are charmingly idiotic as the brothers Bang. Young Mackenzie is very good; Holmes and Denman give solid performances as well. There’s a surprising supporting turn from Seth MacFarlane, of all people. Katherine Waterston and Dwight Yoakam have some excellent scenes as well. Plus, there are a number of real-life NASCAR folks who show up as themselves.

The heist itself might be the highlight of the film, but the characters are the foundation; it’s a dynamic that basically reverses the one we’ve seen from Soderbergh’s past films of this ilk. It’s so beautifully constructed that even the most absurd elements – and make no mistake, there are a few of those – are made easy to embrace.

“Logan Lucky” is a fantastic time at the movies, a fast-paced film that is an outstanding example of the sort of high-concept, high-quality popcorn cinema that Steven Soderbergh makes so very well.

[5 out of 5]

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