In Steven Soderberg's hands, smooth criminals have fleeced casinos, a stripper with a heart of gold has strived for a better life, and unlikely underdogs have fought for the American dream. Now, the man behind Ocean's Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), Magic Mike and Erin Brockovich jumps into the hillbilly heist game. It's a welcome return to the familiar for someone who just pulled off a bait-and-switch of his own — supposedly retiring from cinema after Side Effects in 2013, only to make TV film Behind the Candelabra and stellar medical television series The Knick. Without giving too much away, his recent trajectory has more in common with his latest movie than it might initially seem.
The fact is, changing one's fortune is a recurrent theme in Soderberg's stories, as are hard-working folks bucking against the system. Logan Lucky doesn't just happily join the fold, but does so with a knowing smile — at one point, a news report even refers to the caper as "Ocean's 7-11". Set in West Virginia, the charming film follows three siblings who decide that sticking up a big NASCAR race is the answer to their problems. Construction worker Jimmy (Channing Tatum) has the insider know-how from working on a site nearby, and the motivation after discovering his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is moving across the state line with his daughter (Farrah McKenzie). Car-loving hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough) has transport sorted, which just leaves one-armed Iraq war vet turned bartender Clyde (Adam Driver) to worry about the supposed Logan family curse.
But the trio can't blow their way to riches without demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who happens to be incarcerated. So it is that Logan Lucky becomes a heist flick and a jailbreak film — as well as an exploration of blue-collar workers struggling to get by, a cops versus crims game of cat and mouse, and a touching story about the importance of family. Throw in plenty of affectionate Southern gags and perhaps the best Game of Thrones joke you're ever likely to hear, and the movie proves a jam-packed package of humour, thrills and feeling.
Two things are particularly crucial in Soderberg's working-class pseudo-remake of his glitzy prior hits. Firstly, whether surveying shambling abodes, spying rust spots on well-worn trucks, or poking fun at someone's lack of computer skills, Logan Lucky approaches its characters and their socio-economic situation with warmth. Secondly, though it steps through the usual caper conventions — getting the gang together, resorting to backup plans and avoiding the law — it does so with such zest and vibrancy that you'll forget that you've seen this kind of movie countless times before.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Soderbergh. There's a reason his return to the big screen is worth celebrating, and it's not just his penchant for characters making their own luck or his ability to pull together a killer cast. Tatum is never better than when he's being guided by the director, but Logan Lucky is a testament to Soderberg's own skills. Not just directing, but lensing and editing (under well-used pseudonyms) as well, he's a craftsman through and through. Come for the zippy comedy about ordinary people mastering their own destinies. Stay for the entertaining filmmaking masterclass.