Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Capering through West Virginia: “Logan Lucky”

 Sometimes, especially in the midst of pandemics, girls just wanna have fun. And there’s nothing more fun than a heist movie done right. Logan Lucky falls into that venerable genre of crime capers in which an unlikely team of misfits gathers to pull off – or not quite pull off – an intricate and lucrative job. One of my very favorites is 1964’s Topkapi, directed by American ex-pat Jules Dassin, who had previously helmed the much darker French heist film from 1955, Rififi. The exuberant Topkapi benefits from Technicolor, exotic locales, and a starry international cast (Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Morley, and the wonderful Peter Ustinov, who won an Oscar for his role as a nebbishy fallguy.) The action involves an elaborate plan to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. Do the crooks get away with it? Well, a little bird has told me what happens next.

Two years after Topkapi, I fell hard for a delectable trifle called How to Steal a Million. It’s got Paris, Audrey Hepburn at her most winsome, and Peter O’Toole as his most dashing, so how could I not be charmed? Here’s one caper film where we don’t have to worry at all about suspending moral judgment, because the object being stolen – a small sculpture known as the Cellini Venus – is actually something that belongs to the thieves in the first place. (Don’t ask!) It’s a romantic comedy with a twist of lemon, and what could be more fun than that?

 I’m also a fan of an L.A.-centric heist film, 2003’s The Italian Job, in which a large contingent of Hollywood names (Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland) co-star with a valiant little Mini-Cooper. The underground, underappreciated Los Angeles Metro shows up in a supporting role, and a good time is had by all. (From all reports, this is a much better film than the 1969 British original.) Speaking of updates, the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven, featuring hijinks by Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, was far eclipsed by Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 version, starring George Clooney and a host of other A-listers (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, the late Carl Reiner). This Las Vegas casino-heist film proved so popular that it spawned two sequels and then a female spin-off, Ocean’s 8, with Sandra Bullock as Clooney’s sister and the new leader of the pack. 

 Though Soderbergh claimed in 2013 to have retired from Hollywood, he returned in 2017 with Logan Lucky, about a  blue-collar caper which has been called (even within the script itself) Ocean’s 7-Eleven. (The wholly unknown screenwriter may in fact be Soderbergh’s wife, Jules Asner, writing under a pseudonym.) Here the milieu is far from Las Vegas glitz: we’re in West Virginia, a place of beauty (see John Denver’s “Country Roads,” which plays a key role in the plot), but also a land of poverty and desperation. Also, of course, NASCAR. A motley crew played by Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, a slumming Daniel Craig, and two other doofuses figure out an audacious, sometimes downright hilarious, way of ripping off the proceeds of the local race track in order to re-make their down-at-the-heels lives. Also figuring into the plot: cockroaches, gummy bears, a children’s beauty pageant, and a prosthetic arm. The very indie film was shot in a mere 36 days (which puts it nearly in Roger Corman territory): perhaps that’s why hillbilly accents are every which way and some plot elements never quite gel. But if Logan Lucky lacks logic, it certainly has heart—and good cheer. So I’ll cheer: Hooray!


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