The director of Ocean's Eleven is back with another heist movie. This time, it's more about the comedy than anything else.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s a saying which is true in life, and it’s true in the movies. For decades, we’ve been bombarded with familiar storylines, characters, and premises. Once-dead movie franchises are being resurrected, and filmmakers who have found successful formulas tend to stick with those formulas. It’s why Jurassic World was embraced so well, and also why Steven Spielberg made the much-derived fourth Indiana Jones film. Logan Lucky is Steven Soderbergh's latest film, and it adheres closely to a known formula. On the quality scale of Jurassic World-to-Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it lies somewhere in the middle, but for those who enjoyed the films that it riffs off of, there is definitely something to be enjoyed.
Despite a varied filmography including everything from biographical drama to straight science fiction, Steven Soderbergh has not hesitated from repeating himself in the past. One of his biggest hits was Ocean’s Eleven, and afterwards he made two very similar sequels. Despite the repetition, all three of those films found success in theaters. Part of the reason for that was surely the stellar cast, and the other reason for that was likely the fact that they were all fluid, smart, heist films. Heist films are always entertaining to watch. Logan Lucky is a heist movie, that also happens to have a stellar cast.
At one point in the film, Soderberg even jokingly references Logan Lucky’s similarity to Ocean’s Eleven. Indeed, those who are familiar with Soderberg’s heist trilogy will see a lot of similarities. The premise is straightforward enough. Jimmy Logan is motivated to rob a NASCAR race when he is laid off by a company doing construction work for not disclosing a previous injury that would affect his work when he was hired. Beyond selfish reasons, we see Jimmy's motivation in the form of a young daughter who lives with her mother who is married to another man. Helping Logan is his brother, a bartender who lost his arm in Iraq, and his sister, a hair stylist. Together they find a team with varied set of skills and try to pull off a daring heist. Sure, not everything goes as planned, but that’s just part of the fun, right?
In addition to the premise, fans of Ocean’s Eleven will find similarities in the way the heist unfolds. For one, Soderbergh never really explains to the audience exactly what his characters are doing. He gives us a basic understanding of what they are trying to accomplish, but leaves many of the important details out so that they can be experienced by the audience for the first time in real time. Or, at the end, he goes backwards to give us details that were previously left out in order to use the final outcome as a twist. These techniques were both successful in the Ocean’s trilogy, and are largely successful here. By not giving the intricacies of the plan away ahead of time, Soderbergh can surprise his audience along the way. It also gives them motivation to continue watching - we want to see how it ends. In this way, the film has many unexpected twists and turns. Therefore, even if the film feels familiar in premise and execution, it still manages to be unexpected and intelligent.
However, Soderbergh’s use of the heist to string along his audience is probably the most engaging thing that the film has to offer. Although the cast is great (which I’ll get to in a minute), and the film has some comedic moments, the similarity to the Ocean’s films does leave something to be desired. Since the filmmaking style is so similar, it doesn’t feel as exciting, or fresh. With a different setting and characters, this film feels like it could be another Ocean’s sequel. It doesn’t really feel like it ever comes into its own. It tries to be smart in its editing and plot details, but doesn’t bring much innovation. The pacing also felt slow, almost to the point of being boring in some spots. The tone of the film is somewhat laid back, so there really isn’t much urgency or tension built up to draw the audience in, even when the heist encounters problems.
The film walks a fine line between silly and serious, seemingly influenced by some of the work of the Coen Brothers. As the Coen Brothers have shown with their varied success in making a film that is both comedic and heartfelt, this is a fine line to walk. Soderbergh himself has even tried before with little success (The Informant!). It can be argued that the Ocean’s trilogy had a similar approach, but what made those films work is a certain attitude or swagger. Soderbergh’s use of music and lighting was effective there to help create a cool environment for the actors to be a bit less serious while still maintaining a sense of intelligence. Logan Lucky’s laid back approach doesn’t give the heist story the energy it needed. Instead, it is a much sillier affair than Ocean’s, to its own detriment. Sure, it makes the film more comedic, but many of the performances end up coming off as caricatures rather than characters.
Still, there are performances worth watching. Channing Tatum teams up with Soderburg again in the lead role. While his performance is not the highlight of the film, he gets the job done. His character is believable, and Tatum is able to convey the intelligence that the role requires. Adam Driver plays his brother, and does so in hilarious deadpan. There are numerous site gags with this character and Driver really nails them, making them the funniest part of the film. Riley Keough plays the Logan sister with a quiet confidence and wit. The big draw to the film will be seeing Daniel Craig play a type of character we’ve never seen him play before, an American convict. He does a good job with the accent and is generally fun to watch. The supporting cast has some big names such as Sebastian Stan, Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, and Katie Holmes. Some of them do better than others, and some of them feel unnecessarily added into the film just to get another known name in the credits.
In doing something familiar, Soderbergh’s direction seems to have lost some of its creativity. The hard cuts and jump shots that have been among the most identifiable aspects of his films are few and far between. The Oceans films also get their energy from the camera work, with lots of tracking shots and pans. Logan Lucky has a few of those shots, but the camera is mostly stationary. Instead, Soderbergh’s approach seems to be more focused, less flashy. There are a lot of close-ups, including the opening shot of the movie. Faces and objects of importance are highlighted such that the story is easy to follow, despite a good amount of twists and turns.
Logan Lucky will be compared to Ocean’s Eleven by everyone that sees it, which is what will ultimately hurt it the most. By itself, Logan Lucky is a charmingly fun heist film with a tendency towards the absurd. It features a good cast and a plot full of unexpected twists. However, it’s not nearly as game-changing or interesting as Ocean’s Eleven. This observation will make it difficult for audiences to judge this one by its own merits. Whenever an artist treads into familiar waters, there’s always the risk of seeming repetitive and stale. With film sequels, you can get away with that a little bit more. With original stories, there’s more of a challenge to set the work apart. Despite being an exciting and fun experience, Logan Lucky doesn't quite escape the feeling that it is a lesser imitation.