Director Steven Soderbergh makes his return to feature films with this sweet and clever heist film.

It’s difficult to settle on where to begin when talking about films that have been directed by Steven Soderbergh. Chronologically, his string of (mostly) outstanding movies began almost 30 years ago with the groundbreaking and moneymaking “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” That drama was followed by a dive into all sorts of genres: comedy-thriller (“Out of Sight”), social commentary (“Erin Brockovich”), heist comedy (“Ocean’s Eleven” then “Twelve,” then “Thirteen”), science-fiction (“Solaris”), historical drama (“Che: Parts One and Two”), comedy (“The Informant!”), thriller (“Contagion”), many others.

Soderbergh could do it all, yet he got out of directing feature films almost five years ago, stopping on the high note of the crime drama “Side Effects,” and moved into producing and directing for television (“The Knick”). But before he left features, he found his muse: Channing Tatum, who acted in Soderbergh’s “Haywire,” “Magic Mike” and “Side Effects.” Tatum now rejoins Soderbergh in his return to theatrical filmmaking, the “attempt-at-a-heist” movie, “Logan Lucky.” And what a welcome return. Soderbergh, who also photographed, edited, and possibly wrote the film (under a pseudonym), has made a sweet, goofy and funny romp that’s filled with inventive and often absurd story twists, an army of cast members acting against type and a prominent display of Soderbergh’s strongest points: great pacing and rhythm.

It’s another heist film, but instead of happening in and around the glitz of his Vegas trilogy, it takes place in West Virginia and North Carolina, where divorced Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), who is close with his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) and at least on talking terms with his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), has just lost his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Looks like there’s nothing to do but call on his one-handed – he lost the other one in Iraq – bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and convince him to assist in robbing the race track on its busiest day of the year, when the Coca-Cola 600 is happening. Jimmy says he knows his way around the track’s method of sending money through pneumatic tubes right into a vault. But they need help getting into it and the only man to go to is the renowned explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, proving he knows how to play comedy and talk a lot faster than he does in the Bond films with, mind you, a spot-on Southern accent), who is nearing the end of a prison stint for blowing bank vaults. The plan: Bust him out, do the job, sneak him back in.

The film’s oddball sense of humor is by now in full bloom and that’s even before Joe’s dumbbell younger brothers, Fish and Sam, say they want to take part in the heist. That’s before you realize the no-nonsense and shady prison warden is being played by country star Dwight Yoakam. That’s before the film has begun its blatant product placement campaign (Soderbergh has stated he got the film made via mentions of Coca-Cola, NASCAR, Gummy Bears and maybe even HBO – “Game of Thrones” fans will enjoy the reference to “that hot chick with the dragons” – rather than through standard studio involvement).

When race day finally comes around and our wannabee criminals manage to gum up the track’s credit card system, ensuring that plenty of cash will be flowing through those tubes that day, the film has become a well-oiled machine of zaniness and cleverness.

There’s no great reason for Katie Holmes or her character to be in the film; neither is there one for the presence of Katherine Waterston as a mobile medic, or even, late in the film, Hilary Swank as an FBI agent investigating the heist. No one gets in the way of enjoying the movie, it just would have been a little leaner and tighter without them.

If there’s any confusion among viewers as to what exactly has been going on, either right up front, or hidden away in the background, it’s all explained in a fast-paced, nicely written, revelatory ending. Here’s hoping it’s the beginning of Soderbergh’s return to the screen.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
LOGAN LUCKY (PG-13) Written by Rebecca Blunt; directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Dwight Yoakam. Grade: A.