It seemed a huge loss when writer-director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking at age 50 in 2013. Soderbergh played a major role in establishing a new era of American independent film through his groundbreaking 1989 debut feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Over the next 24 years, he made little-seen masterpieces The Limey), brave experimental films (Schizopolis) and beautifully crafted Hollywood blockbusters (Ocean's Eleven).
Soderbergh's career reached an almost absurd level of success in 2000, when he made Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Both films earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, meaning Soderbergh competed with himself in two major Oscar categories. (He won Best Director for Traffic.) Even more impressive is Soderbergh's Extension 765 website, where he manages to post illegal homemade mashups and re-edits of classic movies directed by other people. What's not to love about Steven Soderbergh?
Those who follow his career were not surprised to find Soderbergh's retirement involved creating innovative television like Cinemax's The Knick — especially since his exasperation with Hollywood was a major factor in what now must be called a hiatus. Soderbergh's return to feature filmmaking is Logan Lucky, a near-perfect blast of summer entertainment the director made outside the Hollywood studio system. He pioneered new ways to retain creative control of his film (and its marketing campaign) while successfully tapping into a wide theatrical distribution network that long has been the primary benefit of that system.
Logan Lucky is what used to be known as a heist picture. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a down-on-his-luck construction worker with an angry ex-wife (Katie Holmes) and adorable 10-year-old daughter (Farrah Mackenzie). Jimmy enlists his brother Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough) and bank-vault demolition expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during what turns out to be the year's biggest racing event. That's it — but that's all Soderbergh and his hyper-talented cast require to work their magic.
The dangers here are many, but foremost among them is condescending to both characters and subject matter. Early on, Tatum and Driver skirt good-old-boy stereotypes, but it's all a setup for the far more interesting characterizations they develop over the course of the film. Just about everyone in the movie is funny and relatable (though the hilarious Craig comes close to stealing the film). NASCAR and child beauty pageants both figure heavily into the story and are treated with rare, low-key respect, rendering the story's Southern setting an asset rather than a liability.
Logan Lucky may set some kind of record for implausibility — pretty much everything that happens in the film represents an exaggerated notion of how the real world works. Somehow that becomes the primary source of the movie's charm. It's a pleasure to receive each small piece of the puzzle as the unlikely caper moves along.
Soderbergh's mastery of craft as director, cinematographer and editor is something to behold. (He may also have written the screenplay — news reports are suggesting that credited author Rebecca Blunt does not exist.) He wastes not a single shot, moment of screen time or fleeting opportunity to tell his story in purely visual terms.
Logan Lucky is the kind of thoughtful, engaging entertainment that should fill every summer. How can that happen when the release schedule is overstuffed with sequels and other formula fare? Things will improve only if established filmmakers follow Soderbergh's lead and shake things up with new methods for financing and distributing their work. A humble heist picture seems the ideal starting point for disruptive and long-overdue change.