Friday, 22 September 2017

Logan Lucky (2017) - Movie Review

Retirement in the world of creative arts has always been a funny thing. As much as it is like any other profession in how some people can get sick of it after a while, the idea of actual retirement in this industry rarely if ever holds water. Here in Australia, one of the biggest running jokes I heard growing up was how singer John Farnham did a retirement concert tour pretty much every year. In terms of films, for as little stock as I hold in the idea of being involved in films flat-out calling it quits, it was still pretty heartbreaking to learn that Steven Soderbergh, one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, was hanging up his hat. Then it was announced that he was doing some TV work with The Knack; still no films, still let down. Then Magic Mike XXL came out, and while he wasn’t directing, he still had a real hand in making it. And then today’s film was announced, and it definitely clicked that a guy who is that passionate about the art form wasn’t likely to just leave the game entirely. But as a dramatic return to the director’s chair, how does this film actually turn out? Is it worth the wait or is it one of those occasions where it would’ve been better if Soderbergh actually did retire?

The plot: After being laid off, construction worker Jimmy (Channing Tatum) is rather down on his luck. He decides to get something back and, with the help of his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), plans to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the place where he was doing construction before he was fired. He enlists the help of convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and a few others to pull off the heist, but as the planned day draws nearer, it seems that Jimmy and Clyde have their work cut out for them.

The cast is pretty much standard issue for a Soderbergh production: A group of name-talent actors put into roles that seem woefully out of their range at first glance, until you hear how good they are in those roles. Tatum and Driver as the Logan brothers do very nicely in their rather low-key depiction of Southern hospitality, with Driver getting some of the bigger laughs just from talking about his arm and what may or may not have happened to it. Riley Keough as the Logan sister fits well into the group dynamic, same with Katie Holmes doing a far better job with that accent than I ever would have suspected. Farrah Mackenzie as Jimmy’s daughter works well alongside Tatum, and she is the linchpin for the most touching moment of the entire film, a role that she carries out brilliantly.
Katherine Waterston fixes a bit of the damage done by her appearance in Alien: Covenant earlier this year with a rather small role that, for as arguably pointless as it is, still leaves a solid impression of just being a natural human being in a group of many others. David Denman gets a nice dressing-down early on in the film, hinting at some of the bigger statements the film makes about what is considered ‘Southern’, Dwight Yoakam gets a lot of laughs as an impossibly dismissive and rather inept prison warden, Seth MacFarlane as the egotistical British race team owner adds another surprisingly solid performance to his pedigree of character acting, Sebastian Stan as the epitome of clean-cut holistic gibberish is very engaging and gets plenty of chuckles, and Daniel Craig as the con Joe Bang highlights a lot of the simplicity that ends up being this film’s biggest strength. That, and I could listen to him explain the science behind a bomb made from bleach and gummy bears all goddamn day.

As you can probably tell by that last sentence, this isn’t your usual heist film. Hell, it seems to actively zig at every point the usual heist film would zag: No heavily technical details, no insanely well-thought-out planning, no major game-changing twist to make the film seem smarter than it likely is; this is less Ocean’s Eleven and more Ocean’s 7-11, a fact that the film itself is more than aware of. Even though the production itself is very precise with a lot of crisp and perfectly-balanced framing in the camera work (done as usual by Soderbergh himself under a pseudonym), the actual story is rather plain. I in no way mean this as a negative and I’m going to point to two different quotes to explain why.
The first comes from the first scene in the film, where Jimmy explains that he likes a John Denver song “because of the song”, while also liking it somewhat for the story behind the song. The second comes from Soderbergh himself, where he details his own philosophy when it comes to filmmaking: “Film-making is like sex. If I accidentally give someone else pleasure, that’s fine”. Between these two, there’s a general agreement that this is a film that is more about entertaining the audience than anything else; enjoyed for its own sake, rather than the usual reaching-for-profundity that both filmmakers and film critics so love in indulge themselves in. Feel free to interpret that line with whatever level of hypocrisy you wish, but since I’ve made similar points to this about the worth of simple entertainment in the past, I hope you’ll understand why I appreciate the sentiment.

So, as a film that is meant to be enjoyed for what it is, what exactly is this? Well, it’s damn funny; that’s a good start. The comedy largely comes out of the character interactions, a point helped tremendously by Soderbergh’s knack for directing actors, and rather than making jokes around the actual plot like a lot of comedies nowadays do, the jokes spring forth from the plot with a lot of the bickering involving minor details and just general conflicts of personal mindsets.
It’s also the type of comedy that is very fluid in its pacing, meaning that a lot of jokes pass by the screen in quick succession and yet most if not all leave a definite impact. After-watching conversations will likely have one another reminiscing on increasing amounts of gags from the film, from the inmates demanding unpublished Song Of Ice And Fire books for the prison library to the aforementioned bleach-and-sugar explosive to Joe Bang’s brother insisting that he is good with computers and that he “knows all the Twitters”. Have to admit, it’s been a while since a gag film of this calibre made it to cinemas and, between the well-defined characters (or caricatures, as is the case with most of the antagonists) and the very natural dialogue spoken by them, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these in the future.

I know I already established that this film clearly isn’t meant to be read into so intently, instead just to be entertained by, but after wringing out some subtext from The Hitman’s Bodyguard last time, I’d feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least try and find something to sate my curiosity. And thankfully, there might actually be more to this than at first glance. As established already, this is low-key and low-tech; homemade explosives and industrial-grade vacuums are about as sophisticated as the equipment gets. On the other side, you have MacFarlane’s Chilblain, a man more concerned with social media status than any real business sense, Yaokam’s prison warden, someone so content with the efficacy of his prison that he hardly entertains the notion that something could go wrong (meanwhile, pretty much EVERYTHING around him goes wrong), and you have the location of the heist, a NASCAR speedway. Even if you’ve never been to the U.S. before, the words ‘southern’ and ‘NASCAR’ go together like cocaine and 80’s stand-up comedians; the stereotyping is strong with this one.
But that’s on the side of the ‘bad guys’; our leads, on the other hand, seem to represent a different kind of Southern Americana. One built less on stereotyping, heavy drawling and hick buffoonery and more on down-to-earth and realistic people and values. I’ve used the term ‘Southern hospitality’ quite a bit in both this review and when discussing Cars 3, another film that seemed intent on restructuring the common perception of the American South. Well, in this case, I use it because with all these flesh-and-bone people occupying the West Virginia landscape, showing immense warmth to their neighbours (and rightful scorn to the idiots who try and warp their values), this makes the Southern U.S. seem just as liveable as any other place on Earth. That may seem obvious, but given some of the other stereotypes associated with these people (Confederate flag, anyone?), having a film that makes it all look like the kind of home you would want country roads to take you back to will never not be appreciated in these parts. You don’t need to be a Southerner to feel the sense of pride and community coming from a room full of people singing along to John Denver.

All in all, Soderbergh makes a triumphant return from his “retirement” to bring us a solid serving of Southern soul food. The acting is excellent, with the usual surprisingly apt casting choices that one would expect from Stevie’s filmography, the production values are very fine-tuned and the writing may or may not be about the finer points of Southern pride, but it’s just that damn funny that it’s not all that necessary to find deeper meaning. It’s an extremely pleasant watch that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is: A fun heist caper.

No comments:

Post a Comment