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There’s a throwaway bit about halfway through director Steven Soderbergh’s laid-back caper comedy “Logan Lucky” in which two NASCAR reporters are grilling a nervous driver about his return to racing after a lengthy sabbatical. The scene goes on for two or three beats longer than you’d expect to spend with such an inconsequential character, watching him unconvincingly assert that after all this time off he’s still at the top of his game. Eventually you realize it’s a cheeky little autobiographical wink from Soderbergh himself, who famously “retired” from feature filmmaking four years ago and has just recently returned to the director’s chair for this late summer lark.
The scene is so funny because there’s nothing at all nervous about “Logan Lucky,” which might be the most relaxed, confident crowd pleaser I’ve seen since Soderbergh’s own “Ocean’s Eleven” back in 2001. This is of course by design, as the new picture plays like a down-market, raggedy-denim riff on the ultra-glamorous George Clooney vehicle, casting Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as two luckless West Virginia brothers putting together a team of misfits to try and rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the year’s biggest race. Clooney and Brad Pitt’s designer tuxedos are replaced here by Tatum and Driver’s Bob Seger and Charlie Daniels Band T-shirts, but the atmosphere of breezy insouciance remains the same. Someone in the movie even beats us film critics to the punch by calling them “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.”
The screenplay by first-timer Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be the director’s wife, TV hostess Jules Asner writing under a pseudonym) sends this crew of former coal miners tunneling under the racetrack, where all the cash from concession and beer stands gets sent via a network of pneumatic tubes. Only problem is that getting into the vault requires the assistance of Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang, a demolitions expert who happens to currently be in prison. So the Logan boys need to break him out of jail for long enough to help with the job, and then break him back in before anyone notices he’s gone. This gets complicated.
“And introducing Daniel Craig,” kids the Soderbergh-designed ad campaign, as if we’ve never seen James Bond before. But there’s a bit of truth to that, because you’ve sure never seen him like this. With his bleach-blonde hair, neck tattoos and delicate Lindsey Graham enunciations, the usually dour 007 floats through the movie on a cloud of self-delight — tickled pink by his own jokes, at which he laughs in a contagious, high-pitched cackle. I’ve been watching Craig in movies for 15 years now and never would have guessed he had this kind of performance in him. He’s a joy.
The rest of the crew is rounded out by up-and-coming Hollywood offspring including Jack Quaid (son of Dennis and Meg Ryan) and Brian Gleeson (Brendan’s kid) as Joe Bang’s hayseed brothers, along with Elvis’ granddaughter Riley Keough as the Logan boys’ way more well-adjusted sister. There’s a beguiling bit from Katherine Waterston as one of Tatum’s forgotten high school flames, with the only bum turn coming from Seth MacFarlane as an arrogant English racing mogul who does way too good of a job making us cheer whenever he gets punched in the face. Luckily it happens more than once.
Tatum brings his reliable brand of lunkhead charisma, complimented nicely here by Driver’s deadpan. The latter’s scenes with Craig are particularly hilarious, with the lanky beanpole underreacting to the squat hambone’s scenery chewing. They’re a terrific team, and the movie is loosely paced enough to hang with all of these characters a bit for some oddball asides instead of just marching everybody through the convoluted caper plot. There’s plenty of time for science lessons, John Denver sing-alongs and the best “Game of Thrones” joke ever.
Soderbergh spent a lot of his self-imposed exile as something of a one-man-band on Cinemax’s “The Knick.” He directed two 10-hour seasons of the period hospital drama while also — as is his custom — working as the cinematographer, editor and camera operator. It was a Herculean feat during which the meager budget and insane production schedule required that he pare his shooting style down to the most elegant of essentials. It’s stunning to watch the assurance these days with which Soderbergh covers complex scenes in barely a handful of shots. In “Logan Lucky” the camera doesn’t have to make any fancy moves because it’s always in exactly the right place.
The film has the tossed-off, casual sophistication of an old master’s late work, the kind of thing great directors make when they’ve already forgotten more than a lot of filmmakers will ever know. In fact, “Logan Lucky” reminded me most of Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado,” in which the director basically just re-made his immortal “Rio Bravo” a few years later because it was a good story he felt like telling again. I’d be happy to hear this one as many more times as Soderbergh wants to tell it.
"Logan Lucky" opens at theaters in the Boston area on Thursday, Aug. 17.