The notion of a crime drama directed by Steven Soderbergh bears with it all manner of expectation, not unlike when you mix “gangster” with “Scorsese.” It’s all a bit 1 + 1 = 2; you can feel when the math is off, and you can also feel when the deviations are deliberate. So I wasn’t sure about No Sudden Move at first, but, for all its immediately apparent polish — and the automatic pleasure of seeing the likes of Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Brendan Fraser up to no good and clearly at odds — it felt, for a little while, like it was reaching a little, wearing its coolness a bit uneasily.
But coolness isn’t the endgame, or at least, it’s not what dominates, no matter who smooth and tempered it looks, no matter how briskly stylish its music, written by David Holmes (who also wrote music for Soderbergh’s Oceans films and Out of Sight, an immediately recognizable vibe), wants to make it seem. Something else is up, here; the characters, the scenario, it’s all a little looser, a little more haphazard, than at first appears. That’s the point, and the pleasure.
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No Sudden Move is, to be sure, a crime drama in the classic sense, with a scheme running red-hot through its center, a straightforward-seeming if also somewhat obscure job, that ought to end in a handsome payday for some, a mission squarely accomplished for others, and maybe a casualty or two, if needed, but this isn’t the kind of plan predicated on drawing blood. It’s Detroit, 1954, and Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), recently out of prison and in need of money, finds himself paired up with a guy named Ronald Russo (del Toro), whose reputation precedes him, and some other guy named Charley (Kieran Culkin), who no one seems to know or say much about. Doug Jones (Fraser), who hired them, sets before them an easy enough mission: a guy named Matt Wertz (David Harbour) has access to a safe, at his work, that holds a secret. Doug Jones wants what’s in that vault; and he needs one guy to keep the gun to Matt’s back as he secures it while the other two are assigned to babysitting duty, keeping watch over Matt’s family in the interim. Easy? Sure, why not.
Things don’t quite work out that way — obviously. The take has tended to be that No Sudden Move (now streaming on HBO Max) is a return to familiar territory for Soderbergh, which is to say, satisfying territory: a crime caper with an all-star, hyper-charismatic cast à la the Oceans films, the more recent Logan Lucky, the verified classic Out of Sight. But the subtle gulf between those films and Soderbergh’s newest is that the latter are all about people who couldn’t be better at what they do — even professionals who, as in the case of Logan Lucky, fail to look the part, in so many ways. These are all movies in which adversity is a ruse, an invitation to play; movies whose fluid, galvanizing pleasure often arises from the pure thrill of watching people pull off the impossible “against the odds,” against systems designed to appear insurmountable. They’re movies about people working by their wits, whose clever collaborations — seeming mirrors of Soderbergh’s own collaborations with his rotating cadre of returning writers, actors, and technicians — are as oil-slick, accomplished, and efficient as the movies Soderbergh cooks up to depict them.
No Sudden Move — with its bustling cast, period trappings, shuffling crime dialogue, canted camera angles, and warped anamorphic images designed for old-school, widescreen pleasure — feels like it should be of a part with some of those movies, but with the additional thrill of being set during an era that calls to mind old fashioned crime dramas broadly-speaking. But that’s not quite the promise on which the movie delivers. These guys? Ronald and Curt? They’re capable, it’s true; they’re no bumbling fools set up to be undone by fate, of the kind you’d find in a Coen brothers thriller, no Jerry Lundegaards. They are, to be sure, experienced: far enough along in their careers as career criminals to have earned enemies, reputations, high bounties on their heads. Curt just got out of prison only a few days before the movie starts, after all, and has something in his possession — something valuable, we’re told — that no mere misfit could have gotten within an inch of.
But the fun, and funny, thing about No Sudden Move is that Curt and Ronald and the people surrounding them are often just this side of hapless. Most everyone involved in the scheme that dominates the movie is a little sloppy — especially the men. The women — chiefly Amy Seimetz as Mary Wertz, wife of Matt, and the exceptional Frankie Shaw as Paula, girlfriend of Matt — wind up coming off a bit wiser. Mary, with her crime-movie wisdom concerning the little details, like the meaning of would-be hostage takers wearing masks; Paula, who in the space of one scene, in a motel room, proves herself to be a master of her own operation. They’re the smart ones.
But the blokes surrounding them get double, triple crossed, emasculated by their paramours, backed into too many corners, too often, by the people they’re ostensibly supposed to outwit. No Sudden Move takes pleasure in overpopulating the plot with avoidable errors, the kinds of things more careful crooks would have seen coming — the folly that, more than any one part of the plot itself, comes to define the movie. This is, like the classic crime dramas of its ilk, a movie predicated on reputations, favors, old scores in need of settling — a lot of stuff that amounts, basically, to reasons to trust no one. Yet these characters do. They wind up having to trust even their enemies — even strangers, as at the very start of the movie. And they reveal themselves to quite desperate, in the process.
What doesn’t define the movie, so much, is its rich context: the wide-reaching secrets of the MacGuffin at the plot’s center, the suggestively specific setting of Detroit in the Fifties, heavy with implication for how things like race and organized crime play out here. And the movie touches on that here and there, makes it more implicit than explicit, taking care to nod where it can to the richness of some of its secrets. Ultimately, though, it’s a movie about people, and their motives, and their choices, in which broad context plays a distinct but ultimately subtle part.
No Sudden Move was written by Ed Solomon, whose career spans from cult fare like Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, to the pop hallmark Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, to popcorn trash like the Men in Black and Charlie’s Angels franchises, to — most relevantly — Soderbergh’s 12-hour, experimental murder mystery Mosaic, which was part series, part interactive choose-you-own-adventure, threaded into coherence by a formidable Sharon Stone. He makes for a good pair with Soderbergh, even as, sometimes, the writing here is a little rickety, as when Curt confesses his ultimate ambition — getting back a piece of land — to an unlikely confidant, in ways that feel a little pat. And the initial nods to Ronald’s racism — his relationship with Curt starts off with him calling the man “Sambo”; his opinions about Black people, voiced early in the movie, are, suffice it to say, not politically correct — set the table for a dynamic that never quite caps itself off, even as the movie’s setting makes it feel more than merely contextual.
The writing, though, only matters so much. It’s Soderbergh. What continues to set him apart, besides his ability to assemble some of the most accomplished casts this side of the Avengers universe, remains the way he morphs every script, even the most talkative, into what feels like action. Every moment of exposition, every flare-up of personality: none of it comes off as mere talk, no bit of swindling feels as straightforward as a mere “Gotcha!” plot twist. It always feels active, alert, contained, stylish. The tilted angles and attentive cutting give the movie a funny energy, lumbering and prone to mishap yet somehow propulsive, brainy, like we’re thinking alongside the characters, even as the characters in this particular story are beset with lapses in judgment. Like we’re in on the story, even as we can’t always keep tabs on where the hell it’s all going, why any of it’s even happening. Soderbergh indulges the pleasure principles inherent to a movie like this. And that’s possible, in part, because he knows what he has. He knows that Bill Duke is too good, too smooth, for a movie not to make his every appearance a pure delight. He knows he needs to hit us with a slow-motion shot of all the major players descending on a conference room, showdown-down, in precisely the way that gets the heart racing.
I had to chuckle, accordingly, at the closing scroll of the movie, which offers something like context for the goings-on — for the MacGuffin, specifically. It feels like a joke: In case you were wondering… I can’t say I ever really wondered. What the movie’s “about” isn’t what it’s about; what it’s about is its own pleasure, the joyous mishaps of a criminal undertaking with as many false starts as a broke-down engine. A fantastic supporting cast helps: Noah Jupe, Jon Hamm, Julia Fox, the late, great Craig Grant… There are scenes here that I immediately had to rewatch, as soon as the movie was over, just to savor them, like an encounter between an eyes-bulging Liotta and an increasingly desperate Del Toro, or that motel room power-play between Shaw and Harbour, or basically every second of Duke clobbering a scene. No Sudden Move is largely about those high points while making good on the swift excuses it needs to get from here to there, with enough divvied up by the here and there to justify hanging it all together. It’s a thrill ride from a director who, recently prone to intriguing, one-off experiments, knows we didn’t exactly need reminding that he’s still got it, but reminds us anyway — flaunting what he has because, well, he can.
No Sudden Move is currently streaming on HBO Max, here’s how to watch it for free.
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