‘Logan Lucky’ Rescues Steven Soderbergh From His Unintended Retirement

Logan Lucky movie poster

I never really believed Steven Soderbergh was all that serious about retiring from filmmaking. Since calling it quits after “Behind the Candelabra,” he directed the Cinemax television series “The Knick,” helped Spike Jonze edit his Oscar-winning film “Her,” executive produced the television series version of “The Girlfriend Experience,” and he has even gone out of his way to recut famous movies like “Raiders of the Ark” and “Heaven’s Gate” (the latter which has been referred to as “The Butcher’s Cut”). This man has had filmmaking in his blood probably since birth, and you can’t keep a good filmmaker like him down.

Soderbergh is finally back in the world of motion pictures with “Logan Lucky,” and it’s another heist movie but one with a cast of characters nowhere as smart or as gloriously debonair as those from the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. In fact, during a newscast we hear someone describe this gang of thieves as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” and this description feels more than appropriate given what we have seen.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a hard-working construction worker at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this soon doesn’t matter as his boss is forced to terminate his employment after he is seen limping around the workplace due to an injury which ended his ever so promising football career. Jimmy is told his limp represents a “pre-existing condition,” a term which these days should be seen as the equivalent of a four-letter word. On top of this, his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) informs him she and her husband will soon be moving to Lynchburg, Tennessee which will make visiting his daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), all the more difficult.

So, what’s an unemployed father with few prospects to do? Well, rob the race track of course. For this, he turns to his brother, the one-armed war veteran and bartender Clyde (Adam Driver), to pull off this challenging heist (is there any other kind?) without a hitch. Together they assemble a team which includes convicted safecracker and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who figures prominently in Sadie’s beauty pageant contest and can drive a Ford Mustang better than Bobbie Jo’s car salesman husband Moody (David Denman), and a pair of brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) who are willing to participate in criminal activities as long as it doesn’t interfere with their religious beliefs.

Is “Logan Lucky” among Soderbergh’s best movies? No, but it does provide the audience with a fun time, and you can sense the director’s giddiness as he tackles the screenplay written by Rebecca Blunt with an unrestrained relish. This is familiar territory for the Oscar-winning director, but we can easily sense how inspired he felt while making this feature. There have been many heist movies and there will be many more after this one, but Soderbergh makes this one breathe as it has a lively setting and characters who could have been mere southern clichés but who are instead brought to wonderful life thanks to the actors portraying them. Soderbergh is also well-served by his frequent collaborators which include composer David Holmes, cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard (pay special attention to those last two names) as they help realize his vision in a way few others could.

This is one of those movies which features a big-name cast, and watching it reveals even more big names than what you may have noticed when looking at the poster. One actor I got a huge kick out of seeing here was Daniel Craig as Joe Bang represents a much-needed change of pace for the actor best known as James Bond (by the way, I’m thrilled to hear he will be playing 007 for a fifth time). Adapting an Appalachian accent which could not have been easy to pull off, Craig is an utter delight playing someone who is not the least big refined or tasteful in the clothes he chooses, or is forced, to wear. Also, seeing him deal with an explosive device he made out of household substances is especially hilarious as he has us in suspense until he doesn’t.

Adam Driver, who is quickly proving to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, is a deadpan delight as Clyde Logan as his face remains an impenetrable one incapable of showing emotions. In fact, I think he is as deadpan here as Steven Wright is in his comedy routines, and that’s saying a lot. Despite the seeming lack of emotions, Driver makes Clyde a fascinating character whose loss of an arms says more about him than he could ever say about himself.

There are many other actors worth mentioning here, but I would rather not as it might spoil the surprises you will find in this movie. I do, however, have to mention Dwight Yoakam who plays Warden Burns as this role represents something of a departure from the typical bad guys he has been known to play. Yoakam is hilarious in scenes where he tries to control a prison riot by explaining to the inmates how “Games of Thrones” show no longer follows the books it is based on. It also took me far too long to recognize Seth MacFarlane as the pretentious British businessman Max Chilblain or Sebastian Stan as NASCAR race driver Dayton White. Then again, this should testify as to what they both can get away with as actors.

“Logan Lucky” goes on a little longer than it should as various loose ends take an extensive amount of time to tie up for us to have a satisfying conclusion, but it is still a wonderfully inventive movie which represents a welcome return for a filmmaker we never wanted to see retire. While it doesn’t match up to Soderbergh’s greatest masterpieces, it does show how his enthusiasm for filmmaking is still strong even after it appeared to be burned out forever. This movie also gives me an increased appreciation for the word cauliflower as well as the music of John Denver. You may ask why, but to discover why, you have to watch this movie.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Batman Begins’ Revisited

Batman Begins poster

Before “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out and thought it was very good, but I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But now having watched it again, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.

The real difference here is, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time around and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this iconic role his own.

We first see Bruce as an 8-year-old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. From there, the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.

Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully explored how Bruce became this crime fighter, and this proved to be a positive and a negative. While it made Michael Keaton’s portrayal more intriguing, it also made his Bruce Wayne/Batman a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how Bruce developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of him throughout.

Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.

When it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with them as they take too much time to set up a character, and they can simply feel like a commercial for the sequel we know will eventually follow. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. But I never felt this way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Bruce become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character you want to keep on watching.

In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes. There’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known by his alter ego of The Scarecrow. Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat here as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, best known for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him truly is.

Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is how the good guys prove to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought this would be the case in a “Batman” movie?

Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way only Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, the role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky as he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.

Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in cinematic history, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again this may show how our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here he can do just this by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.

As Henri Ducard, Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character not in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way their relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her in this movie. The general feeling at the time was that Holmes was miscast in the role, and many thought she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney. Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise gave me a new respect for her I didn’t have previously. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.

As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors you can never go wrong with. Caine gives Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.

Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where he should have too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story, and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.

Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone were the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and in their place we got a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce, after all, is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.

“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, gave this DC Comics character the respect which eluded him on a cinematic level for far too long. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing the character back to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and this movie marked the start of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.

Bring on the Bat!

* * * * out of * * * *