'Logan Lucky' breezes through Southern-fried heist comedy

'Ocean's 7/11' marks a playful comeback for filmmaker Steven Soderbergh

One of the best misdirects comes early in Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh's snappy Southern caper comedy. We find Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a high school football star turned blue collar worker, driving an earth mover in an underground tunnel. Knowing he lives near the West Virginia border, the viewer will probably presume it's a coal mine. Then Jimmy drives out of the tunnel to reveal he's been underneath a massive NASCAR speedway.

Logan Lucky often operates on more than just face value. The tunnel scene doesn't just establish Jimmy's connection to a high-dollar speedway he'll soon try to plunder. It also carries implications about changes in the Southern way of life: mining work may be at risk, but NASCAR remains a powerhouse.

The film marks a terrific return to form for Soderbergh, who announced his retirement from feature filmmaking a few years ago. It was always hard to believe such an unabashed film lover would stay on the sidelines, and rather than slowly ease into his comeback, Soderbergh hits the ground running with Logan Lucky.

Jimmy loses his job due to his "pre-existing condition" (one of the film's nods at current health care issues), which could be the latest in the "Logan family curse" of bad luck that extends his beautician sister Melly (Riley Keough) and his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who lost a hand serving overseas. The losses inspire Jimmy to revert to his old, larcenous ways and exploit his insider knowledge of how the speedway moves its cash around on race day.

Building a team, the Logan brothers enlist an already imprisoned safecracker, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), so Jimmy's idea to stage a mid-day, mid-race heist and getaway also includes a jailbreak as a side mission. Bang brings on some dim-witted kin (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) who provide uncouth comic relief but also serve as unlikely moral arbiters, feeling that robbing from NASCAR is "like hurting America."

Words fail to convey just how much Craig seems to be enjoying himself. After years of playing an effectively stoic James Bond, he absolutely delights in taking on a colorful, incorrigible criminal. He savors Joe Bang's drawl like its aged whiskey, at one point punctuating every syllable in the word "incarcerated."

The whole cast treats Logan Lucky as a lark, with Driver another standout, his slow delivery and sad-sack demeanor belying the character's keen perception. But no heist here is quite as brazen as Dwight Yoakum nearly stealing the movie as a testy prison warden. The female roles, like Jimmy's ex-wife (Katie Holmes) seem a little undercooked by comparison.

Logan Lucky overtly riffs on Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 someone even calls the robbery "Ocean's 7/11." Crisp montages rich with jokes describe the target, comparing the Speedway to a small city. Soderbergh and screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (a rumored pseudonym for the director) parcel out details of the plan and build suspense when the wheels start coming off. If it's less charming and satisfying as Ocean's 11, it deserves some credit for having deeper ambitions.

Logan Lucky tries to find humor in the extremes of Southern culture without denying the characters' dignity. A subplot follows Jimmy's daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) as she prepares for a child beauty pageant. The talk of spray tans and incongruous Rihanna covers plays for comedy, but it never reaches mean-spirited parody. Meanwhile, genuine economic anxiety underpins the criminal enterprise, giving the film a real-world resonance the Ocean's movies never had.

Logan Lucky proves surprisingly generous to redneck bandits, angry exes, humorless FBI agents and even a hilariously pretentious racing star (Sebastian Stan). The only real villain is Max Chilblain (Seth McFarlane), a buffoonish, British owner of an energy drink company. McFarlance's blustery performance is the film's most discordant note, but feels partly intentional. Chilblain isn't just a jerk - he fundamentally doesn't get the South. That's a mistake that Logan Lucky never tries to make.

Logan Lucky. 4 stars. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Stars Channing Tatum, Adam Driver. Rated PG-13. Opens Aug. 18. At area theaters.


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