Daniel Craig is somehow a leading man. He’s not particularly suave, but he certainly looks good in suits. He’s not particularly romantic, but he’s certainly magnetic. Hollywood has tried him out in a few different ways, but none more successful than when realizing Craig is best as a grimier, imperfect, slightly-off weirdo than a clean-cut leading man. No film has gotten it as right as Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, but a few have had inklings of his potential strangeness. His energies are wasted on a defining character (James Bond) that can never fully escape its history, no matter how much gritty nuance Craig brings to the role’s fluctuating legacy. Logan Lucky embraces an inherent strangeness and danger in Craig’s performances to give him his best role in years and a chance to escape his typecast fate — there’s a reason the trailer and closing credits say it’s “introducing Daniel Craig.”
After starting off playing military dickheads and various hunks in a lot of costume dramas, wearing wigs almost as long as his sleeve ruffles, Craig transitioned to roles more suited to his abilities. His knack for pushing moral complexity with his roguish looks — his tiny, deep-set, piercing eyes, tight, microscopic lips, and pointy ears all chisel a man on the untrustworthy side of handsome — and slippery delivery made him as deft a villain as a fast-talking antihero.
He’s much better at this than being a piece of eye candy like in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). That film sees Craig strut around naked with a gun, which is basically how I’d describe James Bond as a character to an alien, but it’s a boring role in a boring movie — no matter how shredded the man’s stomach may be. But his swindlers — like the con artist in Tales from the Crypt’s “Smoke Wrings” — emphasize the scheming, wily part of Craig’s delivery that comes out in both Logan Lucky and the film that would eventually land him Bond, Layer Cake (2005).
These roles allow Craig to squeeze and purse his face’s endearing wrinkles into various shapes that scream “door-to-door bible salesman” and “meter reader that is actually a home invader.” He’s often a little mentally off in these roles (or a LOT mentally off in the case of his dual role in the excruciatingly lethargic piece of psychological nonsense Dream House ) and often a criminal (like in The Jacket , Road to Perdition , Infamous , and The Adventures of Tintin ) — a direction that other actors (Viggo Mortensen, Jake Gyllenhaal) have embraced in their move away from traditional leading men.
Logan Lucky is the pinnacle of this movement because he plays not only a criminal, but a comedic pastiche of a criminal. Joe Bang is a demolitionist dandy, bleached blond with rolled sleeves to show off his prison tats. His Southern accent makes his already breathy voice reedy and effeminate. His dirtbag delivery almost veers into camp with his pronunciation of words like “incarcerated” and “Florida,” squeezing them out with an Aziz Ansari whine. He sounds like if my Arkansan uncle did a demo reel for a King of the Hill character but was too excited to sit still. Plenty of punchlines (whether by reinforcing the character’s intelligence or touching on some of his stranger eccentricities) make the explosives expert a powerful mid-career statement by Craig, tackling American comedy with complete, chaotic success.
He’s allowed to undercut his own professional persona and the side roles leading up to its solidification. George Clooney, when a baddie, still wears crisp suits and has slick hair (even in a chain gang, thanks to Dapper Dan). I can’t see Tom Hanks or Matt Damon with doofy gutterpunk tattoos all over, but on Craig, they work. He’s got such a flexible appearance that he could play an imperfect secret agent or a Lollapalooza rapper who’s aged rather poorly.
He brings the visual fallibility that makes him such a believable slimeball to his high-profile leads like Bond and Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Even in these he proves himself to be an actor who is always more fun to watch getting beaten up than beating people up. His is the lovable scoundrel or everyman who, if too successful, feels disingenuous. Barely overcoming much better, more skilled individuals or systems is fitting for an underdog with the abs of a leading man and the bearing of a British hooligan. One of his most iconic scenes as Bond is almost as distinct as possible from his high-altitude parkour opening. Tied to a chair and having the absolute hell beaten out of his balls, Craig’s endearing grimace as a tough yet smarmy lout won just as many hearts (if not more) than when he emerged from the sea like Botticelli’s soggy-briefed Aphrodite.
Logan Lucky embraces Craig’s smarm and charisma, positioning him at his most effective: a scene-stealing side character. Especially now, with Craig’s image in the public consciousness as a man so cool that he almost (almost) turned down James Bond’s 25th outing, his weirdo roles are at their peak. It’s like Sean Connery doing Zardoz (1974) only a few years after Diamonds Are Forever (1971) — creating dichotomies in one’s popular perception (and getting weirdly naked) makes for a more interesting and diverse legacy.
Jacob Oller lives in Chicago, is a weirdo.