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D: Steven Soderbergh / 118m

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Farrah Mackenzie, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Macon Blair

And… he’s back! Four years after he announced his retirement from directing, Steven Soderbergh returns with a stripped-down version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and damn, is it good to have him back. Soderbergh’s refreshing indie sensibility has been missed in the interim, and while many of us took the news of his retirement with a pinch of salt, it’s still reassuring to know that he’s retained the same levels of enthusiasm that made his movies so highly anticipated. A project that Soderbergh was originally asked to find a director for, Logan Lucky proved too tempting for him to pass up, and so we have a high stakes caper movie that re-establishes him as one of today’s most accomplished movie makers, and reminds us all of just how much he’s been missed.

The plot is quite a simple one: after one setback too many – being laid off, learning his ex-wife and their daughter are moving away, he and his brother getting into a fight with a race car sponsor – Jimmy Logan (Tatum) decides there’s only one thing for it: to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do this he enlists the aid of his brother, Clyde (Driver), an Iraq war veteran who has a prosthetic left hand, their sister, hairdresser Mellie (Keough), convicted safecracker Joe Bang (Craig), and his two brothers, Fish (Quaid) and Sam (Gleeson). Carrying out the robbery isn’t as simple, though. It requires Clyde getting arrested and sent to the same prison where Bang is currently “in-car-cer-a-ted” so they can break him out on the day of the robbery (and then get him back in before anyone realises he’s gone), disabling the credit card system so that all sales on the day are cash sales, using nearby construction tunnels to gain access to the pneumatic pipe system that transfers cash to a main vault, and using an industrial vacuum to make the biggest “withdrawal” in Charlotte Motor Speedway history.

Of course, while the plot may be simple, the execution of the robbery is anything but, and the script throws in enough twists and turns and unexpected obstacles to keep the audience guessing as to whether or not the Logans – operating against a family “curse” that always seems to keep their endeavours unsuccessful – will get away with it. At the same time, Jimmy’s plan does depend on a number of things going their way when he couldn’t have any idea that they would, such as the obtuse behaviour of a couple of security guards, and the all too convenient silence of a witness, but these minor gripes aside, the robbery and all its components are assembled with a sureness of touch and a witty, deadpan delivery that makes it all the more enjoyable. As Soderbergh flits confidently between the Speedway, the prison, and the pageant Jimmy’s daughter, Sadie (Mackenzie), is taking part in, the rhythm and pace of the movie improves on its somewhat slow start, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, from what happens to Clyde’s prosthetic hand, to the putting out of a very dangerous fire at the prison.

The heist itself is the movie’s centrepiece, expertly constructed and put together by Soderbergh (with help from editor Mary Ann Bernard – no, wait, that’s also Soderbergh), and embellished by a carefree, 70’s-infused score courtesy of David Holmes. But the wraparound sections don’t have quite the same lure or sense of involvement, so that some viewers could be forgiven for wondering if some of the early staging is necessary, or if the extended postscript (which explains much of what happened “behind the scenes” of the robbery and its planning) could be any more perfunctory in its nature. In essence, the movie is like a three-act play, except that it’s only the second act that makes an impact. Soderbergh directs the other two acts with his usual skill, but the way in which the script is structured, and the way that some scenes take longer to conclude than is necessary, hampers the movie as a whole, and though there are moments of beautifully observed comedy in each, this is akin to grunt work: it needs to be done so we can all appreciate the cleverness of the robbery itself, and then the cleverness of how Jimmy et al avoid the attentions of dogged FBI agent, Sarah Grayson (Swank).

Also along the way, some of the script’s other vagaries are allowed to unsettle the viewer and the flow of the narrative, such as MacFarlane’s grandstanding British race car backer, the awkwardly named Max Chilblain, and a minor subplot concerning an old flame of Jimmy’s, Sylvia (Waterston), who runs a mobile clinic that’s starved of funds. MacFarlane brings an odd British accent to the role – part Cockney, part something else entirely – but forgets to attach a character to it, while Waterston’s contribution is reduced to just three scenes. Tatum essays yet another quietly determined everyman who everyone underestimates, while Driver is taciturn and rarely shows any emotion. For the characters, these are good choices, and they’re matched by Keough’s confident, strong-willed turn as the third Logan, while Craig has a field day as the occasionally camp, but always expressive Joe Bang. Everyone in the cast looks as if they’re enjoying themselves, and it comes across in the free and easy way in which the characters interact with each other.

But this is still very much a Steven Soderbergh movie, made with his usual flair and utilising the same casual shooting style that he’s been employing for nearly three decades. A Steven Soderbergh movie always feels loose, even his more serious features such as Solaris (2002) have a sense that they were shot quickly and with a minimum of fuss and effort, and Logan Lucky is no different. This is a movie that entertains and holds the attention (for the most part) and which serves as a validation of Soderbergh’s inherent skill as a director, cinematographer and editor. As a return to movie making it may not be as strong a choice as other movies on his resumé, but it does serve as a reminder that he’s been sorely missed.

Rating: 7/10 – an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, and a clear return to form for its director, Logan Lucky doesn’t quite manage to impress all the way through, but this really shouldn’t put off anyone from seeing it; if you’re a fan, you’ll like it for what it is, and if you’re a newcomer then this is as a good an entry level movie as you could need.