Friday, August 25, 2017

Logan Lucky: Misfit heist comedy beats the odds

Logan Lucky (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat harshly, for brief profanity and crude language

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.25.17

Director Steven Soderbergh appears to have been bitten by the Fargo bug.

The droll, slow-burn Logan Lucky could be described as a cross between Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 and that iconic 1996 crime thriller — and its more recent, and ongoing, television adaptation — with additional regional absurdity supplied by an impudent original script credited to “Rebecca Blunt.”

Jimmy (Channing Tatum, right) employs a cardboard diorama to explain his "perfect
scheme" for robbing the heavily guarded underground vault at the Charlotte Motor
Speedway, as his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) reacts with mounting disbelief.
The quotes are intentional, because no such person exists. As yet, this film’s writer hasn’t been identified, although sources have suggested Soderbergh, or his wife Jules Asner, or several other possibilities. Certainly Soderbergh is no stranger to pseudonyms; indeed, he employs two for Logan Lucky, having supplemented his director’s duties as both cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard).

The narrative here certainly displays Soderbergh’s long-established dry wit and arch sense of humor, and the film is guaranteed to delight viewers who appreciate the methodical build-up and eccentric characters that more frequently populate British quasi-comedies.

The storyline takes its time while bringing the primary characters to the stage. The setting is small-town West Virginia, where divorced, down-on-his-luck Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) never gets to spend enough time with doting young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie, cute as a button). Jimmy’s intentions are good, but circumstances always interfere, much to the displeasure of ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), now married to the insufferably wealthy — and insufferably smug — Moody (David Denman).

Jimmy spends considerable time commiserating with his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who lost an arm during war service in Iraq, and now tends bar at a local dive rather oddly dubbed the Duck Tape. Clyde is convinced that every member of their clan is doomed by a longstanding “family curse,” hence his missing arm, and Jimmy’s injury-related limp, with similar misfortune stretching back generations.

Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) sniffs at such nonsense, and well she should; there’s certainly nothing amiss in her life. Far from it: Aside from being a talented and popular hairdresser, Mellie is obsessed by cars to a degree that extends way beyond being able to quote make and model stats like a baseball fan; she also can hot-wire anything — and always carries the necessary supplies for such endeavors — and knows local traffic patterns, night and day, with the facility demonstrated by taxi-driving Stan Murch, in Donald Westlake’s marvelous Dortmunder novels.

Jimmy’s apparent bad luck does rise anew as this story begins, when that limp costs him his current job, as part of a huge crew working in tunnels beneath neighboring North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway: a massive project designed to prevent the unstable ground from subsiding further beneath the iconic tourist attraction. Discouraged and desperate for cash, Jimmy concocts a crazy scheme to rob the heavily guarded cash vault in the fortified Speedway basement.

But not so fortified, at the moment. The underground work crew has exposed a portion of the pneumatic tube system by which the topside ticket and concession attendants “drop” excess cash during a busy race day.

Jimmy eventually persuades Mellie and the highly reluctant Clyde to participate, but they all recognize the need for a demolitions expert. The best man for that job? Definitely the eccentric Joe Bang, but he’s five months from the end of a prison stretch, in a drab penitentiary supervised by control-freak Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam).

I hate to spoil the fun for viewers likely to struggle, when Bang enters the narrative, while trying to figure out who’s playing this role. It’s none other than James Bond himself: Daniel Craig, sporting a bleached crew cut, laser-intense gaze, and a dead-accurate regional accent that demonstrates, once again, how adept British actors are, when it comes to Southern U.S. dialects.

(You also have to love his on-screen credit, which doesn’t come until after the film concludes: “And introducing Daniel Craig.”)

It becomes clear, pretty quickly, that Bang is the sharpest tool in this particular work belt ... but that’s not saying much. Alas, the smarts that he brings to this party are undercut — quite seriously — by an insistence that “his interests” be guarded by younger brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson): know-nothing, low-life slackers who make Jimmy and Clyde sound like Rhodes scholars.

Except that Jimmy isn’t quite as dense as he appears. Top to bottom, his scheme has the cachet of “crazy enough to succeed,” although he obviously didn’t figure on the dim-bulb antics of Fish and Sam.

The subsequent journey therefore is just as much fun as the operation itself, and this script’s gimmick is that we viewers also discover the various elements of Jimmy’s methodical plan only as they’re revealed to his team.

Aside from the utter absurdity of the scheme itself, the film’s humor derives from the relentless solemnity with which most of the actors handle their characters. It’s a constant gimmick: No matter how crazed a given conversation — with Fish and Sam winning the contest, in terms of jaw-droppingly irrelevant non-sequiturs — the line deliveries are dead-straight ... which, of course, makes them that much funnier.

As are the slow takes of disbelief, mostly coming from Tatum.

The one exception is Craig, who deliberately over-plays Bang with twitchy, maniacal intensity, his very being positively humming with barely suppressed intensity, as if one mild rebuke away from an explosion of ferocity. In a different sort of film — say, in one of director Guy Ritchie’s British crime flicks — Bang would be the villain of the piece, and yet here he’s (ostensibly) one of the good guys. (Craig appears to be spoofing his earlier, genuinely nasty roles in films such as Road to Perdition and Layer Cake).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Driver is hilarious as the somnambulant Clyde: so relentlessly flat and unemotional that he barely seems conscious. He’s the ultimate Eeyore: forever put-upon and resigned to getting (as Marilyn Monroe famously lamented, in Some Like It Hot) the “fuzzy end of the lollypop.” We spend the entire film waiting for Clyde to crack even the barest semblance of a smile, and his stoicism just keeps getting funnier.

Keough’s Mellie is this narrative’s lone “straight” character — her auto-eroticism notwithstanding — and she’s flat-out cool. Mellie also is the only person willing, and confidently able, to stand up to the bitchy Bobbie Jo and her condescending husband. Mellie’s put-downs of Moody are guaranteed to become Internet legends.

As befits its setting, the story spends some time with activities at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and most particularly with arrogant race-team owner Max Chilblain (a completely unrecognizable Seth MacFarlane) and the two obsequious members of his “non-tourage” (Alex Ross and Tom Archdeacon).

Additional key characters include Sylvia Harrison (Katherine Waterston), a physician’s assistant at a mobile clinic, who recalls Jimmy from their high school days; and Hilary Swank, as an FBI agent who pops up once things, ah, get interesting.

All of these misfits, hangers-on and sidebar characters are anchored by Tatum’s imperturbable Jimmy: outwardly impassive but clearly sheltering a much stronger poker hand than anybody expects. Tatum’s performance is so low-key that we tend to overlook Jimmy’s finer qualities: doting father, dependable sibling — willing to brawl even when badly overmatched — and loyal compatriot in crime.

This film’s many pleasures notwithstanding, it won’t appeal to viewers who demand faster — and more frequent — dollops of action. I wouldn’t want to drop a single scene, but the pacing might have benefitted had Soderbergh trimmed five or 10 minutes from the two-hour running time.

Then again, since exaggerated tranquility is at the very heart of this story’s atmosphere, Soderbergh obviously knew exactly what he was doing. Logan Lucky takes its time with development and plot, but then builds to a wonderful third act ... followed by an equally delightful — and unexpectedly complex — epilog.

Along with a great final scene.

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