When brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan break a tattooed, shock-blond convict named Joe Bang out of prison, tangling him up in a wild scheme to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a busy racing weekend, it’s safe to say they have certain professional expectations. This is, after all, a high-risk operation, advantageously but stressfully coinciding with NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, a swell time to rob a speedway. And the guy they busted out is, after all, named Joe Bang: He's ostensibly a vault expert, but his truer calling is clearly demolition. But when Joe Bang shows up to the speedway on the day of the heist, primed to bust into the vault through an “underground cash highway” made of pneumatic tubes, he’s got no proper bomb with him—only gummy bears, chlorine pens, fake salt, and a plastic bag. With them, somehow, he devises an explosive—and it works. When, after a terrifying but easily fixed hitch, the bomb finally goes off, the brothers Logan look amazed. “What,” says Joe Bang, “you thought I was gonna use dynamite or somethin’?”
Well, yeah. It’s not that Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s smooth new heist comedy, is about dumb crooks. It’s pretty clear, early on, that at least a few of these guys know what they’re doing. This is a heist movie whose scheming involves color-coded cockroaches, a staged prison riot, and the aforementioned gummy-bear bomb: This isn’t the work of fools, even if they are, at times, hilariously foolish.
But it’s the premise of the movie that they defy our expectations. Logan Lucky is about an event that eventually goes down, in fabricated West Virginia lore, as the “Hillbilly Heist.” At its center are two blue-collar brothers from the Mountain State—construction worker Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and bartender Clyde (Adam Driver)—who’ve been feeling a little put down, and decide to act out. They’re the town simpletons, apparently, known for getting themselves head over heels into dumb shit since they were kids. (They’ve got a code word—Cauliflower—that essentially means, “Let’s fuck shit up for no reason.”) Clyde is a two-time Iraq war veteran who lost part of his arm in combat and who more or less has a habit of getting dragged into trouble by his brother. He believes in a thing called the “Logan Curse,” a way of rationalizing his own bad luck through family history. Jimmy, meanwhile, just got fired from his job filling sinkholes beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway, thanks to an unreported injury that makes him a liability. He’s got family problems, too, namely an ex-wife who’s about to move out of state with their daughter, Sadie.
You can already tell how this is going to work. Jimmy’s experience working the sinkholes beneath the speedway plants the seed of what you wrongly expect to be a harebrained scheme to rob the joint, and the other characters enlisted to help—their hairdresser sister, Mellie (Riley Keough); the vault man Joe Bang; two of Joe’s brothers; and a few others—all fall in line, experts at their own quirky little slices of the overall scheme. There’s a reason these guys get called the “Oceans 7-Eleven” on a TV news report. But as always with Soderbergh’s finest crime capers, knowing that classic Hollywood setup by heart doesn't quite explain the range of clever, hilarious surprises the movie devises and watches its characters think through, nor does it anticipate Soderbergh’s slickly satisfying way of capturing it all.
It’s a harebrained scheme only in its ambition. All the things the Logans and Co. come up with to pull it off, by contrast, are the marks of people who understand how institutions work, even if they have no shot, in terms of class status, at running one. These characters aren’t Robin Hoods, exactly; Soderbergh isn’t pressing for moral goodness, even though his characters are, essentially, good people. He’s pressing for comedy. And the central comedy of Logan Lucky is in watching the little people get over on the big dog, more resourcefully than you thought possible—something of a manifestation of Soderbergh himself, who seems to favor people acting out against big systems (like Erin Brockovich) because, in the context of the Hollywood system, he’s one of them. His approach to releasing this new movie is a case in point.
Logan Lucky marks a major attempt by Soderbergh to short-circuit the traditional system of marketing and distributing a movie in today’s low-risk studio landscape. The movie, which was made on a $25 million budget, is opening in 2,500 theaters through a series of deals Soderbergh arranged with theaters and the 20-or-so-employee indie distributor Bleecker Street. The idea is to cut down on the money spent on getting a movie into theaters, lowering the bar for turning a profit and, ultimately, creating more favorable conditions for directors who, like Soderbergh, prefer to tell stories in their own risk-friendly way. It’s funny, though, to think that a project as potentially radical as this could feel so breezy and slight. Soderbergh told The New York Times recently that he was done making “important” movies; his jungle-trekking two-part political biopic Che, starring Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara, killed that notion. So instead, his most recent spate of films have felt like beautiful, effortless little trifles—movies like Haywire and Contagion that feel too small to be the enduring efforts of someone so big.
But that’s the wonder of them. Soderbergh doesn’t make important movies—he makes good ones. And a movie like Logan Lucky succeeds in part because it’s wonderfully told, with Soderbergh’s trademark knack for collapsing exposition until it feels intellectually abstract, like we’re watching peoples’ thoughts and actions—the plans they dream up and the plans they carry out—get collapsed into the same moment. Dude loves a good montage, and the joy of watching one unfold is that he makes us feel like we’re thinking alongside his characters. Per usual for the director, Logan Lucky leans on a star-studded, hyper-charismatic cast, a sea of familiar faces. Soderbergh stacks even the small supporting roles with the likes of Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Seth MacFarlane (so cleverly disguised I thought he was a young Mike Myers knockoff), and Hilary Swank.
The leads, meanwhile, are all alive with rich detail: Joe Bang, with his beach-resort blue eyes and the fake salt he carries in his socks to liven up his daily boiled eggs; Jimmy Logan with his preacherly, over-enunciated drawl. Tatum and Soderbergh remain a strong alliance. Here and in the Magic Mike movies, Tatum proves himself to be the perfect kind of hero for the Soderbergh universe—that is, a hard-working, charming, practically-minded presence who nevertheless never lets you forget he’s a star. Soderbergh loves to see these living persona machines put to work, and so do we. Logan Lucky may be, by those standards, more of the same. But more of the same, from Soderbergh, is what more summer movies should aspire to be.