Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky hit theaters this month, marking the director’s return to the big screen and his reunion with what might be his favorite kind of movie: the heist flick.
Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum alongside Adam Driver and Riley Keough as three siblings who decide to rob a vault of money located beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
That’s the simple premise that Logan Lucky is built on and it’s more than enough to make for one of the best and most entertaining films of the year. Sure, Soderbergh easily conjures up a few motivating accouterments about Jimmy Logan (Tatum) losing his job and trying to provide for his daughter, but these elements are so swiftly drawn that the audience easily finds themselves on board with the heist no more than twenty minutes into the film.
However, Logan Lucky does not just succeed in capturing the audience’s attention and sympathies; it easily sustains them. The film clocks in at an hour and 59 minutes, but you won’t feel it. Like the race cars that thunder around the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Soderbergh propels the film forward with a vigorous energy all the while juggling eccentric characters, a complex heist plot, a prison break, and even a Miss West Virginia Beauty Pageant with ease.
Soderbergh’s deftness for crafting such an eccentric and entertaining heist movie is no coincidence. He’s no doubt a talented filmmaker, but he has a familiarity with this genre that serves him well.
Before Logan Lucky, Soderbergh directed three popular heist movies that you’ve probably heard of: Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen. The series brought together the biggest stars of the early 2000s, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Combined, the franchise made over a billion dollars at the box office.
Embodying Soderbergh’s style for the oversaturated and glamorous, the crafty and clever, the Ocean’s franchise turned a simple premise into a great movie and then made it feel fresh three times over. With each installment, Soderbergh found a way to hit the same satisfying beats that made them so compulsively watchable while also altering them enough to make them their own distinct stories.
With Logan Lucky, Soderbergh doubles down on what he achieved with the Ocean’s franchise, delivering yet another wickedly smart and wildly entertaining movie. The commonalities among these films help reveal just what makes Soderbergh’s marriage to the heist movie such a fruitful union.
First and foremost, he delivers an eclectic cast of characters full of playful idiosyncrasies and well-rounded characterizations that ground the film while simultaneously providing quirks that give the films their patent uniqueness. The Ocean’s franchise is built on the premise that the central protagonist — Danny Ocean played by George Clooney — must assemble a diverse crew with various skills in order to pull off the heist. This premise gives Soderbergh the opportunity to draw characters that are equal parts compelling and amusing, giving the audience ample reason to invest in the story he’s telling.
Logan Lucky draws on this same element, perhaps more successfully than the Ocean’s franchise; rather than stack the cast with a set of high skilled, affluent criminals, the characters in Logan Lucky are working class people who are more authentic than the characters in Ocean’s.
By centering the story around a single family, Soderbergh establishes an intrinsic emotional thread that runs through the story. The dynamics between these characters — a war veteran missing half an arm, a hairdresser with a proclivity for cars, and a down-on-his-luck former football star — provides the necessary foundation upon which to tell the story.
Moreover, Soderbergh’s heist films are an impressive display of how the director has mastered the movie montage. This is a feature that runs through the whole of Soderbergh’s filmography, but the use of the montage in his heist films stands out. Rather than lean on heavy verbal exposition to convey information to the audience, Soderbergh relies almost exclusively on tacit visual cues and nonverbal communication.
The demands of a heist film make it a perfect setting for Soderbergh to flex his montage skills. The heists in these films, from Ocean’s Eleven to Logan Lucky, are never simple, requiring him to engage in an entertaining juggling act that pushes the story forward as the characters race against time.
Finally, Soderbergh has perfected and refined the third act surprise. There is an undeniable precision in Soderbergh’s storytelling that ensures the audience is only given the information he wants them to know. While films often reveal a missing piece of information at the end that brings things into focus, Soderbergh’s heist films reveal far more than just a single missing piece. Logan Lucky pulls off this feat with expert finesse.
Just when it seems the heist is wrapped up without conflict, Soderbergh takes the story in an unexpected direction which allows him to reveal an entire parallel plot that gives the story a greater and unforeseen depth.
What’s even more striking is the way Soderbergh borrows the techniques and characteristics of his heist films and applies them to his other movies. For example, Magic Mike, The Informant!, and Side Effects all demonstrate Soderbergh’s ability to tell a story that, at its core, is about someone stealing or cheating someone else out of something.
In Magic Mike, the strippers monetize their sexual appeal. The Informant! stars Matt Damon as whistleblower attempting to leverage his knowledge of his company’s illegal activities for his own personal safety. Finally, in Side Effects, a wife seeks to con her away out of murdering her husband in order to escape a life she no longer wants.
The elements discussed earlier — the odd assortment of characters, the montages, and even the third act surprises — all show up throughout his other films. I’ll leave it to you to decide if Soderbergh is applying his heist movie techniques to his other films or whether these are simply the trademarks of his craftsmanship.
Regardless of the answer to that question, Logan Lucky makes it clear that Soderbergh flourishes as a filmmaker in the heist genre. The marriage of director and genre has yielded some of the best filmmaking of the year, demonstrating that an artful film need not be devoid of entertainment.