Film Review: ‘Logan Lucky’ travels familiar county roads en route to a revved up crime film

LL_01221 Daniel Craig stars as Joe Bang in Steven Soderbergh's LOGAN LUCKY, a Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street release. Credit: Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street

Can we please put in place a five-year moratorium on using John Denver songs in movies? After Free Fire, Alien: Covenant (which had by far the dumbest usage of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in any film or advertisement yet), Okja, and now Steven Soderbergh’s new film Logan Lucky, we’ve gotta be due for a break or something. Perhaps it’s because the singer-songwriter died 20 years ago in a plane crash and we’re only getting around to realizing that, or perhaps it’s because we’ve run out of classic white-people music to put over horrible things happening, or because the Denver estate finally got cool with the hip people who wanted to use his stuff in their ironic movies.

Whatever it is, it’s gotta stop.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” is probably used the best in Logan Lucky, which is set in West Virginia and has a few cute moments of bonding between Channing Tatum and his on-screen daughter (though Okja’s use of “Annie’s Song” might have it beat just for sheer audacity and fun), and it’s a nice way to establish a setting for a very “unusual” little crime film. Soderbergh, having retired and returned to the game with a speed that’s only rivaled by Jay-Z and that one time Conor McGregor retired from the UFC for five days because of that money, didn’t want to see anybody else abuse a beautiful screenplay that he wrote under an alias. That might not be have been a great choice: Soderbergh plays it safe, and while the end result is a decent amount of fun, it’s most definitely not the best work it could have been.

Jimmy Logan doesn’t want to think he’s cursed. Family members like to bring up how the Logan family’s never been able to have solid success with much of anything, and the only bright spot in his life is his young beauty-pageant contestant daughter, whenever his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) allows him to see her. He’s a West Virginian through and through, though he’s not opposed to travelling all over the South for work. And it’s in North Carolina where he gets a gem of an idea. Tatum’s solid here, though he’s kind of chafing a bit under the “humble yeoman” that Soderbergh forces him into every time he needs a hunky protagonist to go through the troubles of the day. In Magic Mike it was the struggles of starting a small business when a bank won’t give a loan that kept him down and still stripping, and that worked well enough.

Here it’s the pre-existing knee condition that keeps our boy Jimmy from keeping his gig as a forklift driver for a construction company tasked with renovating the underbelly of Charlotte Motor Speedway that forces him into a life of crime. He’s never able to truly sell why a loving father would even chance being away from his daughter for what seems to be a point-of-pride reversal of fortune, but honestly that doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that he’s been beaten down throughout his life, and like the protagonist of a Springsteen song, he’s gonna go back and rob the folks who unwittingly gave him the deets he needed.

He ropes his one-handed bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and hair-cutting gearhead sister Mellie (Riley Keough) into helping him out — Clyde as a wrangler and Mellie as a getaway driver — and they begin to draw up a plan, picking up members of their crew along the way. Keough’s fine, though she’s not given much more to do than to be a stable Southern woman in a family of weirdos, but she’s a good counterpoint to Tatum, and it really feels like they could be related, though it took me a decent amount of time to realize that they weren’t a couple in the first place. Driver’s performance is the most divisive in the film, and I have a feeling that people are going to vibe better on it than I did. Something about his portrayal just doesn’t totally work; it might be the accent or his disaffected vibe- but I bet his character reads wonderfully on the page. He’s a veteran who lost his arm in the Middle East, and he’s smarter and more competent than he looks, even though he’s prone to some shock-and-awe style escalation in mild conflicts. They realize that they’re a bit outmatched, and that they need a few other hands, including a demolitions expert, and Jimmy and Clyde visit their main choice in prison — a redneck safecracker named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig).

Craig is absolutely electric here, and he’s having significantly more fun than in anything you’ve seen him in ever since he donned a tuxedo and hopped behind the wheel of an Aston Martin. Bang’s just a little unhinged and dangerous, but Craig never really lets that slide into outright menace: He’s got a childlike recklessness and humor to his actions, and even then, demands to be taken seriously. He’s got so many fun quirks that are actually explained away throughout the film, including his “required” preference for fake salt on his eggs, and there definitely was a ton of thought put into making his character work on screen. His spotlight section of the film, in which he attempts to blow up a vacuum tube underneath the Speedway with some… unusual ingredients in his bomb, is utterly fucking hilarious and is endowed with an acerbic wit that the rest of the film lacks, and he’s a wonderfully unstable element in the group.

Anyways, Bang offers to get his cousins (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) involved, and they make a plan together, that involves breaking Bang out of prison and a lot of moving parts that are a lot funner to watch than for me to tell you about. All of that gets significantly more complicated when the date of the robbery is forced to move forward several weeks, which places it right under the speedway’s biggest event: The Coca-Cola 600. Along the way, they’ll come into conflict with prison wardens, nurses, security guards, stock car drivers, the FBI, and a poorly thought-out appearance by Seth MacFarlane. And a quick shouts-out to Sebastian Stan, who plays a goofball NASCAR driver obsessed with Wellness, and Soderbergh’s always a delight when he’s given a subject in which he’s allowed to bare his satirical teeth. His introduction (and inevitable downfall) is amongst the funniest scenes in the film, just up there with a prison riot that gets so nerdy and weird that it’s wonderful. And that’s all I can say about that.

Soderbergh directly invites the comparison to his previous heist films by having a character call the crew in the film the “Ocean’s 7-11” gang, but aside from some of the delights on display in watching the Bangs and Logans at work, the stakes are both considerably lower and the reveals just a bit slighter in comparison.The distant digital photography that has defined the director’s work since the mid-aughts doesn’t initially offer much flair, though it gets better and more vivid as the film goes on and we go to different locales along with the characters. The plot still crackles along and the clever nature of the plot and its reveals is undeniably fun to watch unfold, and there are exceptional sequences within the film’s runtime — the prison break and the actual specifics of the robbery itself, especially.

It’s definitely a Good Movie, if that’s what you’re looking for me to say here, but I found myself left oddly cold. There’s a distance from the setting, as if Soderbergh doesn’t totally know what to do with West Virginia aside from using the sign demarking its state line as a way to tell time. It’s generic in a way that doesn’t feel totally right. Also, there’s a weird tendency towards smarm here that feels false, and isn’t wholly earned throughout the film, and a “heartwarming” moment later on the film invites unflattering comparisons to The Book of Henry. He likes his characters here a great deal, and is thusly unable to view them in any other light than in the most positive. And that’s fine, and undoubtedly it’ll play well to a large audience in “Real America,” but I just missed the edge that a lot of certified Southern entertainment has to it, like in the works of David Gordon Green or Jody Hill, where there’s an earned and interesting cynicism to counteract all of the mythologizing and humor.

There’s an uncomfortable balance between being able to chuckle at the antics of the Bang cousins, who are dumb hicks and make no pretensions at being anything other than that, and that earnest strain of ’70s style “rough times but I’m doing the best I can” stuff that defines Soderbergh’s recent lighter work. One might what it would look like if those roles were reversed — if Tatum was treated with less respect and more goofiness and the Bang brothers given an air of dignity about them — and how that might affect the whole tone of the movie. Would it make them less worthy of your affection as an audience member if they weren’t as straight-laced or pre-packaged for your enjoyment all over the country? People flocked to Kenny Powers regardless of his edge, and it doesn’t help that it feels packaged for the New York critic who’s going to write a thinkpiece about “Entertainment in Trump’s America” or whom will throw around the words “red state” without considering that people all over the damn nation might enjoy the same kinds of art and entertainment.

So, Logan Lucky is still a fun little film beset by its considerable problems, but it’s an appetizer for whatever Soderbergh’s going to do next. Even if this one’s not great, it’s a wonderful day when we get anything from him, and gladly this experience has convinced him to make more theatrical films.

Joe Bang fucks, though. I’d gladly watch another movie with him in it.

Logan Lucky images courtesy of Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing, Bleecker Street. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.