by Benjamín Harguindey
If nothing else, 2017 will go down as the year in which movies discovered what a lovely song is John Denver’s 1971 country single “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, which was already included in Alien: Covenant of all things and features prominently in the plot of two other 2017 comedies, Logan Lucky and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
First in line is Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbegh‘s new movie following his latest purported retirement. It’s a a comedy heist film much in the vein of his famous Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen movies, but with a turn into the real of tenderness and understatement. It resembles very closely a Wes Anderson movie, in whimsical spirit and stark composition.
Set in North Carolina, the movie follows the hapless Logan brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). Jimmy has recently lost his job as a construction worker, Clyde mans a bar with his one remaining arm. Pressured by his ex wife and the threat of missing out on his daughter, Jimmy hatches a plan to pull a heist on a NASCAR race with the help of his own crew of misfits, which includes brother Clyde, barber sis Mellie (Riley Keough) and the brothers Bang.
The Bangs are one of the movie’s big selling points – big bro Joe is played by Daniel Craig in a bleached-blond crew cut and speaking in one of those scornful Southern drawls. Joe is in jail – he’s even wearing one of those cartoon striped black-and-white prison onesies – but that doesn’t stop the Logan brothers of throwing him into the plan, which isn’t all that complex but it’s certainly more believable than anything the Ocean movies ever pulled together, and while the sleight of hand is still there, it’s easier to follow as well. It’s the first time in a while that Craig doesn’t seem to be playing a James Bond send-up and he’s a pleasure to watch in the movie, he seems to be having so much fun with the cheeky hoodlum.
“Cheeky” is about right the best word to describe Logan Lucky. Cheeky and silly. It invites with relish some of the goofier moments – Joe Bang interrupting the Logans mid-heist just to drive in his math through their thick skulls, a prison riot so ridiculous it seems ripped off right from something like The Naked Gun – but overall it defaults over to nice, well earned cuteness and sentimentality. And as with many other Soderbergh movies, it ends with a cheery toast, never mind if the ending could be construed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The movie is such a delightful fun time and the characters are so endearing that for once I was sorry it was over.
The John Denver song comes into play through Jimmy’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), who has a school recital coming soon and has memorized by heart the story of the song’s composition from her dad. Just as the characters pause during the heist to respectfully chip in during the National Anthem, so does the movie linger on Sadie’s sweet rendition of the Denver classic. It’s an endearing moment.
The song finds its way into Kingsman: The Golden Circle and, weirdly enough, is employed in similar fashion: it’s introduced near the beginning as something that’s close to a character’s heart, then it’s covered by said character during the movie’s final moments in attempted sentimentality. Except the movie is so nasty in general that the attempt falls flat (never mind that the actor excels in playing out those final moments).
Here’s another actor that does way more for the movie than the movie deserves: Julianne Moore. She plays Poppy, the designated villain, bent on exterminating Kingsman. She offs the British agency in the movie’s opening act – including, apparently, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who seemed so important in the first movie – and leaves it up to survivors Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) to team up with American counterpart Statesman to take revenge.
The ‘Kingsman’ franchise is supposed to be irreverent action comedy, I suppose; grotesquely violent (the first movie features the largest number of head-explosions in film history, for starters, all of them played for laughs) and boastfully flippant. This may have worked to a point in the first movie, which stayed relatively grounded and stuck to parodying the spy genre, but the sequel is a mess of ideas and half-hearted attempts and nothing sticks together.
Consider Poppy. A sociopathic kingpin, she has chosen some ruins in the jungles of Cambodia as her base of operations and customized them as a 1950s theme park replete with fast food diners, milkshake bars and bowling alleys. This for no particular reason (as go most things that happen in the movie). Other things she’s doing for no particular reason: kidnapping Sir Elton John and forcing him to play non-stop in her utopia (what about Elton John’s music gels with Poppy’s Chuck E. Cheese suburbia?), forcing her henchmen to murder and cannibalize each other as a sign of their loyalty and employing robotic mastiffs from sci-fi to do her bidding.
At one point I wanted to sit down the movie and shout at it no, you don’t get to have robot dogs, cyborg henchmen, modern-day Arthurian knights, laser-powered cowboys, 1950s utopias and a moment of quiet dignity where a character chants country folk classics on his final stand. The movie doesn’t have an ounce of dignity, don’t even start pretending this close to the end. Not when this is followed by Elton John kung-fuing goons in slow-mo to the tune of “Rocket Man”. Not when it’s preceded by our gallant lead plugging some bimbo’s naught bits with a beeper (more on that).
Meanwhile, the valiant Eggsy teams up with Statesman’s Tequila (Channing Tatum), then seconds later re-teams with Whiskey (Pero Pascal). Tatum sits out most of the movie, which begs the question why even have him in it except to hog the publicity material. Other superfluous new additions to the cast: Academy Award winners Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry, underused in pointless bit parts. Colin Firth returns for no other reason that he’s a fan favorite from the first movie. His return undoes pretty much all sense of progression, about as much as Roxy’s death does for her.
The gist of the movie is that it’s grotesque over-the-top fun. It’s amusing in the Grand Guignol tradition of a nasty horror show – people are ground into meat twice, necks are broken, torsos are lasered and heads explode real good – but for the sense that the movie is trying to offend the viewer, which just seems hypocritical. About the nastiest thing to happen in the movie is our hero’s quasi-rape of Clara (Poppy Delevingne), inserting a tracking device up her vagina in about as detailed a manner as you can get away with in an R rated movie. Uh-huh. What was that about manners maketh man again? The movie never quite recovers from that gratuitous sequence of events. Hopefully nor does the franchise.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).