Friday 25 August 2017

The comeback kid: "Logan Lucky"

The big story with Logan Lucky is the return of Steven Soderbergh, the Sinatra of modern American cinema, unretiring himself after an absence of fully, ooh, four years. (Since the theatrical release of 2013's Behind the Candelabra, he's worked exclusively in television - overseeing two seasons of period hospital drama The Knick - and confined his communication to gnomic Twitter missives.) One sadness within the wider tragedy of the 90s indie bubble bursting in the first decade of the new millennium was watching one of the Sundance scene's brightest and most inventive filmmakers strike out time and again with ideas he seemed invested in only up until the first morning of the first day of shooting - wisp-films, doodle-movies, something to focus a brilliant yet restless mind until the money for the next project came together. (See also: the sprawling filmographies of Michael Winterbottom in the UK and Johnnie To and Takashi Miike in the East, those of creatives whose reserves of ready funding have outweighed any reserves of patience.) For an idea of where Soderbergh was at the start of this decade, one need only contrast his enervated and infuriatingly vague 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience with the stunningly sharp and precise TV series later Sundance alumni Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz fashioned from it.

We sense how refreshed Soderbergh is very early in the new movie: here is a heist film making moves not unlike those of his Ocean's movies - a lark that turned into the kind of lumbering studio franchise liable to exhaust any right-thinking director - and yet it's possessed of a markedly different feel. For one thing, this here's a rural heist movie - shot around Georgia and North Carolina - and we shouldn't discount the possibility that being out in the open, and taking the country airs, has had a positive effect on Soderbergh. (Bonus: it takes him further beyond the reach of meddling executives.) It's here we find Channing Tatum's Jimmy Logan in the course of being fired from a construction job because his medical insurance will no longer cover a pre-existing leg injury. (Rural America, then, but also real America.) This, as Rebecca Blunt's script would have it, is but the latest manifestation of a family curse that also saw Jimmy's younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lose his upper left arm while fighting in Iraq. Over the bar Clyde now tends, a plan is hatched to reverse the pair's fortunes: raiding the loaded bank vault beneath the local NASCAR track. To this end, they - and Jimmy's poised sister Mellie (Riley Keough), just maybe the brains of the operation - assemble the expected motley crew, the participation of any one of whom would be enough to cast doubt over the plan's likely success: their explosives expert, an Aryan-blond hulk nicknamed Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), is presently behind bars for his troubles, while their scrawny computer whizz (Jack Quaid) undermines any air of expertise via the "DANGERUS" tattoo he flaunts on his right shoulder.

Soderbergh's goal would appear to be regaining the rhythms that sustained his best work, and in this, Logan Lucky (the reversal may be colloquial, as in Country Strong) is a success, loose - wholly relaxed in the manner it goes about introducing its characters - yet strikingly confident and composed. The first half gathers up funny, memorable scenes as one might strawberries with a picnic basket: Jimmy tanning his precocious daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) in his garage using a paint sprayer, or bumping into a nurse (Katherine Waterston) on a corner outside a 7-Eleven and being invited into her mobile surgery for a tetanus booster. Here is the kind of life, not necessarily crucial to the plot, which generally has to be sheared off in the editing room on more mechanical productions, and which was conspicuously lacking from some of Soderbergh's more abstruse and eggheaded experiments: from first frame to last, the new movie is precious good company. You could argue it's a shade too casual about the specifics of the heist itself, in a way a control freak like Danny Ocean (speaking on behalf of his paymasters at Warner Bros.) would never allow: one of Joe Bang's ad hoc explosive devices is a plastic bag holding Gummi Bears and topped up with bleach, a concoction that causes Clyde to mutter (on behalf of the audience) "We're supposed to believe that that's the thing?" Yet it hardly seems to matter so long as Soderbergh remains this deeply engaged with every last one of his characters.

There was a danger that Logan Lucky would turn out to be Soderbergh's impression of an Alexander Payne movie, raining down liberal-elite condescension on its ensemble of hicks, but the casting of Jim O'Heir, the endlessly put-upon Jerry in that beacon of televisual tolerance Parks & Recreation, in a supporting role seems more telling of where the film is coming from. (An aside: between O'Heir and Keough - star of the small-screen Girlfriend Experience - it may well be that Soderbergh spent his time off, as so many of us do, sat on the sofa huffing boxsets. Again, our better movies absorb and learn from Peak TV.) These "hee-haw heroes" are both dumber and smarter than they first look, which accounts for the film's unpredictable energy and kick. Joe Bang explains that concoction by chalking a chemical equation onto the stadium cinderblocks; two scenes later, Clyde has his prosthetic arm sucked into a vacuum. The second half is all punchlines; everything and everyone is paid off in a manner Preston Sturges would have appreciated. Yet if Soderbergh has finally made his peace with that old showbiz axiom "give 'em what they want", he's still smart enough to realise he doesn't have to give it us in the order we were expecting, and that he can also slip in business we didn't know we want - the pleasing sight of Tatum hiding behind a NASCAR-sized candyfloss, say, or a singalong to "Take Me Home, Country Roads" that goes towards the project's essential sincerity. (Opening with Tatum dissecting the significance of "Some Days Are Diamonds", this is very much Soderbergh's John Denver movie.) If the spirit of invention that gave cinephiles sex, lies & videotape, Kafka and the Solaris rethink looks to have been set aside for now, this director has rediscovered his urge to entertain, and we should happily take that for starters.  

Logan Lucky is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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