Ocean's Eleven had George Clooney emerging from prison in the rumpled tuxedo he was arrested in. Even in the context of the effortlessly hip universe of globe-trotting miscreants the 2001 film set forth, it was a cool look. That look established his character, Danny Ocean, as a gentleman crook — smart and suave and pewter-haired, stealing from the rich to give to himself and his friends because they'll just be so much better at spending money than the assholes they're taking it from.
Steven Soderbergh, who directed the Ocean's trilogy and who returns from a four-year retirement from filmmaking to bookend it with the equally jubilant new heist comedy Logan Lucky, is a savant when it comes to understanding the appeal of his lead actors. He constructed his fantasy of a community of hypercompetent thieves around Clooney's matinee-idol aura — con men as movie stars, or vice versa.
We want Danny to win not because he was wronged in some way, but because he feels he's too suave and too smart to have to submit to the indignities of a daily grind, and Clooney sells us on the fact that Danny’s right.
The main character in Logan Lucky, on the other hand, needs to win because he really needs the money. Jimmy Logan is a working class guy facing a future of unstable employment in an area with few opportunities — a red-state talking point transformed into the hero of a heist flick. The film, which was written by the possibly fictional Rebecca Blunt, is Ocean's Eleven turned inside out. Its characters are amateurs, a trio of siblings from Boone County, West Virginia, who try to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the biggest NASCAR race of the year.
The plan they come up with is no less elaborate than Danny's plan to rob three Las Vegas casinos on the night of the big fight, but it's rigged together with all sorts of duct-tape ingenuity. And it's centered around Jimmy, a man who was struggling to get by before he got laid off from his construction gig due to insurance-related bullshit.
Tatum enters the film elbow-deep in the engine of his truck, and spends the rest of it in camo cargo pants or Carhartts. Soderbergh understands the contradiction of Tatum as a performer — which is that he can come across as a little stolid until he explodes into dance or physical comedy or that million-watt smile. Soderbergh built Magic Mike around Tatum, his history, the way he moves, and his general air as someone who, while not dumb, has gotten used to assuming his strengths are in what he can do with his body rather than his brains. His title character in Magic Mike was a man very aware of the ticking clock on his stripping career, and of the need to eventually move on to something else.
His character in Logan Lucky never had a chance to run out the clock — in high school Jimmy was the quarterback and the prom king, chasing a pro football career before blowing out his knee. Now he walks with a limp and has the meaty solidity of a guy who works with his hands, but whose athlete days are gone. He's still a dreamboat, but a battered and disheartened one — aware his best days might be behind him and that he's got little by way of promise in his future.
It's a future in which he's asked to endure being looked down on by Seth MacFarlane (as a wealthy, British-accented race-car sponsor), a humiliation no human being should have to endure. And it's a future in which he might not be able to see the daughter he adores, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). Sadie is Jimmy's whole world, though his ability to see her hinges on his shaky relationship with his since-remarried, white wine-sipping ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes).
It's the desire to stay close to Sadie that finally prompts Jimmy to recruit his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver, speaking with a delightfully slow drawl), an Iraq War vet with a prosthetic arm; and their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a hairdresser with a taste for fast cars; to take part in the caper. With the help of a DIY explosives expert appropriately named Joe Bang (an antic Daniel Craig), who's initially inconveniently incarcerated, they dip their toes into a life of crime.
Where the Ocean's films leapt easily from Vegas to Europe and back again, Logan Lucky is mainly concerned with the drive from Concord, North Carolina, to West Virginia. Its characters don't get to travel, and it's the possibility of Bobbie Jo moving Sadie across state lines to Virginia — where Jimmy can't afford to follow — that gets him moving on his plan.
Any dumb quip you might think to crack about Logan Lucky, the movie already makes for you. At one point a local newscaster nicknames the attempted theft "the hillbilly heist," "the redneck robbery," and "Ocean's 7-Eleven." The film is awash with regionally and culturally grounded details, from the centrality of NASCAR to the child beauty pageant Sadie gets dolled up to compete in. The Logans even conduct some important business at a county fair, and endure a chemical leak contaminating the local water supply with the forbearance of people well-accustomed to being stepped on by corporations.
But the film's humor comes from the characters' eccentricities, not the lives they're living. When Joe Bang forces the Logans to bring his two newly religious brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) in on the job, for instance, the punchline is not their faith but the moral loophole through which they justify participating. They have to be assured that someone they knew had a bad experience when working at the supermarket sponsoring the race, so it deserves to be robbed.
All of this happens to echo the kind of desultory rationalization heist movies often cough up to allow their characters to comfortably be cast as good guys as well as thieves. But that's something Logan Lucky doesn't even bother with. Its characters share a general sense of downward mobility and disillusionment with the American dream, but there's no more effort put into demonization of their targets than there is a Hillbilly Elegy-style castigation of the Logans.
Choosing a setting like Logan Lucky's is practically a politically charged act in itself these days — here's a serious slice of Trump country, complete with noneuphemistic economic anxiety! But the closest the film gets to showing its hand in that regard is only in how little it bothers making a case as to why we should root for the crime it's depicting to be successful. The people the Logans are robbing have lots of money, and they have next to none. What else needs to be said?
Maybe just this: Logan Lucky features a scene in which Tatum cries while listening to a little girl sing "Take Me Home, Country Roads." It's not Clooney in a tux, but it's just as good.
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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