No Sudden Move: A Cynical but Crackerjack Thriller
Steven Soderbergh can’t be pinned down easily: thirty-odd films into a thirty-odd year career, the accomplished director has bounced around various genres, formats, and technologies as often as any contemporary filmmaker. But as exciting as that variety can be, there’s a feeling of comfort whenever Soderbergh returns to the crime caper — you don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you know the floor is high for whatever the project turns out to be.
No Sudden Move, streaming now on HBO Max, is the latest in this particular lineage, following in the footsteps of Out of Sight, the Ocean’s trilogy, and Logan Lucky, and on its face the film seems to have a lot in common with those previous efforts: a stacked cast with great ensemble chemistry, crackling pace, and an abundance of witty banter. But as the film moves along, it becomes clear that while Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon remain invested in the notion that movies should be entertaining, they aren’t interested in making Ocean’s ’50s — No Sudden Move is at its core deeply (and rightfully) cynical, bordering on nihilistic, forcing the audience to grapple with the evil at the root of corporate America.
Set in 1950s Detroit, the film primarily follows two low-level criminals, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) as they find themselves in over their heads after a simple heist job becomes — unsurprisingly — a lot more complicated. Forced to trust each other, at least in the short term, Goynes and Russo have to navigate a city being torn apart by systemic racism, political corruption, and corporate greed in order to find some way up and out.
A movie that refuses to spell things out for you (perhaps to its detriment for some viewers), No Sudden Move is thrilling to watch minute by minute, mostly due to the fact that rarely a scene goes by without multiple great but undersung actors sharing the screen. Cheadle and del Toro are predictably excellent (with Cheadle in particular showcasing a combination of desperate energy and world weariness that highlights the film’s thematic undercurrents) and they’re joined by the rock-solid likes of David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, and the legendary Bill Duke — however, if you’re looking for standouts among the supporting cast, your best bets might be Brendan Fraser, returning to form as a menacing mid-level enforcer, and Amy Seimetz, whose smartly selective expressiveness adds real depth to the sort of character that’s too often paper-thin in films of this ilk.
The skill in front of the camera is matched by that behind, as Soderbergh feels in complete control technically as director, cinematographer, and editor — though “in control” doesn’t always equate to unequivocal success: his use of wide-angle lenses in particular, clearly a very intentional choice, alternates between engaging and distracting. Something similar could be said for the narrative choices; as mentioned above, the film admirably doesn’t want to hold your hand, but the plotting is so knotty that Soderbergh and Solomon risk viewers losing the thread completely.
That being said, if you’re willing to put in a little bit of effort then the thematic richness and contemporary resonance underneath the surface is well worth the investment, but in any case even some narrative confusion probably won’t lessen the sheer entertainment value on display. As a crime thriller, No Sudden Move is Soderbergh near the top of his game, and as a subtextual treatise on the one-sidedness of the American Dream you could do a whole lot worse.