Steven Soderbergh never went anywhere; let's get that out of the way right off the bat. Though he famously announced in 2013 that his thriller Side Effects would be his last theatrical feature, Soderbergh was working harder during his four-year "retirement" than many filmmakers do in an entire career. He directed 20 episodes of his Cinemax series The Knick; he served as cinematographer and editor on 2015's Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to his own celebration of washboard abs; and he executive-produced three other TV series, including the adaptation of his feature The Girlfriend Experience. Despite any gripes Soderbergh might have had—and might still have—with the state of mainstream theatrical filmmaking, he wasn't exactly getting rusty.
His return to the big screen finds him slipping into a comfortable genre—the same kind of frisky heist caper where he had his greatest commercial success with the Ocean's trilogy—but that doesn't mean Logan Lucky is a case of Soderbergh on autopilot. Whatever dust he needed to shake off before delivering a barrel of fun with loads of tiny, delightful details, he left on the ground somewhere long before he got to the set.
The setup for the centerpiece crime is dispatched efficiently in the script credited to newcomer Rebecca Blunt. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a one-time pro football prospect who blew out his knee and now survives by picking up odd jobs like working on a construction project at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. When his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) says she and her new husband are planning to move away, taking Jimmy's daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) with them, Jimmy realizes he needs money either to fight in court or relocate. So with the help of his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver) and his sister, Mellie (Riley Keough)—and possibly explosives-expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), if they can break him out of prison—Jimmy hatches a plan to rob the speedway of its cash deposits.
"Efficiently" doesn't necessarily equal "effectively," and if there's anything missing from Logan Lucky, it's a strong enough anchor in Jimmy's relationship with Sadie. While that connection serves as an analog from a plot-driving standpoint to the Danny/Tess relationship in Ocean's Eleven, it feels more perfunctory, even as it builds up to a big moment when Jimmy tries to make it to Sadie's performance at a youth pageant. The frequently repeated idea that the Logan family is cursed—including Clyde having lost a hand while serving in the military—should make the family connections even deeper; instead, there's rarely a sense that the movie is as interested in rich characters as it is in superficial pleasures.
Those pleasures, however, are plentiful. Soderbergh bathes Logan Lucky in its West Virginia and North Carolina settings, from community gatherings like an Easter fair to the feeling of defeat that clings to a one-time big fish in the small pond like Jimmy who didn't live up to his potential. He's confident enough to take a detour to focus on the strained relationship between a NASCAR driver (Sebastian Stan) and his cocky sponsor (Seth MacFarlane, radiating entitled doucheiness), or build a diversion at the prison around the inmates' seeming inability to process how TV's Game of Thrones has moved past George R.R. Martin's books.
But mostly there's the clicking engine of the heist itself, which delivers all the near misses, ingenious planning and backtracking twists that you could hope for. It's a delight watching Craig's drawling Joe Bang try to diagram the chemistry behind his improvised explosive, or feeling the pieces fall into place when a seemingly random bit of background business reveals itself to be part of the scheme. Like in Ocean's Eleven, the plan here is a series of small smiles all building to the goofy grin as Soderbergh's crisp editing pulls everything together.
It feels like a structural miscalculation that Logan Lucky spends a lot of post-robbery time on the FBI investigation—led by an agent played by Hilary Swank—including a coda that serves as an unexpected downer. Fortunately, there's plenty of goodwill built up by the previous 100 minutes, showcasing the work of a filmmaker who understands how to please an audience—and is willing to come out of "retirement" to do it.