In "Logan Lucky," the famously English Daniel Craig slips into the role of a hillbilly malefactor as if it were custom-made camouflage: He's entirely convincing. He might not be the movie's funniest element — there's quite a bit of competition — but he's a hoot to have around.
When we first meet Craig's blazingly bottle-blond Joe Bang, he's in a West Virginia prison, presumably for blowing stuff up (his professional specialty). Joe has been sought out by the movie's central characters, the lovably dimwitted Logan brothers, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). They have a scheme to salvage their loser lives by robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway in nearby North Carolina during a big NASCAR race over the Memorial Day weekend. Joe sure would like to help them out (by blowing a Speedway safe), but as he thought the Logans might have noticed, he is incarcerated. No problem — they've devised a plan to sneak him out of prison to take part in the caper, then sneak him back in afterward. It's complicated, naturally — which is a large part of what makes the movie so much fun.
The other part is its fondly wrought characters. The Logans may not be the smartest biscuits in the basket, but director Steven Soderbergh — a Southerner himself — doesn't treat them like backwoods morons: They're anchored in the real world. Jimmy has just lost his construction job because of a dumb health care regulation; Clyde, who believes there's a curse on the Logan family, lost his left hand on a tour of duty in Iraq. (He still manages to tend bar at a local tavern, though — and in one scene Driver does a pretty dazzling job of single-handed martini-making.) Soderbergh also takes an affectionate approach to Southern life. His Virginia is a place where "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is regarded as an unofficial state anthem, and he opens the movie with a scene in which Jimmy is telling his little daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) a delightful (and accurate) John Denver origin story.
The Logans' Speedway op — which turns into an extended ballet of bad moves and close calls — involves a number of other colorful characters. The boys' sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), brings impressive cockroach expertise to the project. Joe Bang's brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) contribute some inspired idiocy. And Joe himself displays surprising chemistry smarts, fashioning his safe-cracking bomb out of gummy bears, bleach pens and low-sodium salt. ("We are dealin' with science here!" he crows.) Jimmy also has an ex-wife who still sort of loves him (Katie Holmes), an old high-school admirer who still carries a crush (Katherine Waterston), and a loudmouth Brit nemesis (Seth MacFarlane, almost unrecognizable under a very bad wig) who could bring the whole Speedway deal crashing down. Also showing up is an FBI agent played by Hilary Swank, who gives the movie's most wonderfully weird performance. ("I hate airtight alibis," she announces.)
This is director Steven Soderbergh's first theatrical feature since he "retired" four years ago to devote his time to painting and television production (he directed, shot and edited the entire two-season run of the Cinemax series "The Knick"). He says he was drawn back into the big game by the quality of the "Logan Lucky" script, which is credited to a first-time screenwriter named Rebecca Blunt. Intriguingly, no one has been able to locate Rebecca Blunt, and so we're invited to accept the story that she first broached the idea for the film directly to Channing Tatum after encountering him in a bowling alley . Skeptics note that Soderbergh himself has written a number of scripts over the course of his career, among them the ones for his first feature, "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," and his 2002 "Solaris." And of course this picture bears a family resemblance to his "Ocean's Eleven" trilogy (at one point someone describes the low-tech heist here as "Ocean's 7-Eleven.")
Soderbergh denies that he is Rebecca Blunt, or that his wife — TV host and author Jules Asner — is the mysterious scribe either. Whatever the case, this picture suggests a great director easing back into the feature-film game. It isn't one of Soderbergh's very best films (a high bar): It's a little scattered, and not quite as funny as you might hope (it could use some of the satirical bite of, say, "The Informant!"). But at the end of a summer that has assaulted us with duds like "The Mummy" and "Baywatch" and various unwanted Transformers and played-out Caribbean pirates, "Logan Lucky" feels like a cool country breeze on a hot August day.