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Dir: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin. 15, 115 mins.
For No Sudden Move, director Steven Soderbergh has gone back to old habits and comforts – meaning the heist film, à la Ocean's Eleven and Logan Lucky, and a rogue’s gallery of famous faces. But he’s always taken a true craftsman’s approach to his work – and what may from a distance look like a director working on autopilot reveals its layers once you hold up the magnifying glass and examine the seams. No Sudden Move may be a fairly minor entry in his filmography, but it’s well-crafted and thrilling in a way that feels oddly reassuring.
Set in Detroit in 1954, it tracks the uneasy alliance formed by two hired hands, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) after they’re recruited (by Brendan Fraser’s Doug Jones) for what appears to be a straightforward job. All they’re required to do is “babysit” the family of Matt Wertz (David Harbour), while a third goon, the erratic Charley (Kieran Culkin, as exquisitely slimy here as he is in Succession), escorts him to his office in order to retrieve a document from his boss’s safe. The plan, of course, hits some complications. Goynes and Russo stray into the paths of two criminal bosses, Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke) and Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). And this is the rare crime film where the women play a central role in the scheming, whether it’s Wertz’s wife Mary (Amy Seimetz), the secretary he’s having an affair with (Frankie Shaw) or the gangster’s moll (Julia Fox) who’s entwined with both Capelli and Russo.
It’s a well-populated story, with appearances down the line by Jon Hamm and a mystery Soderbergh regular in a meaty cameo role. But the director, who’s now able to call on the talents of pretty much anyone he likes, is familiar with the basic pleasure of watching a cavalcade of stars roll by. There are no half-hearted performances here, though the film’s true soul lies in Cheadle, whose expressions flicker with the light of a few dying embers – a broken, far-off dream. And it’s wonderful to see Fraser making the most of his career renaissance, having also been cast in forthcoming projects by Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese. He savours each line like he’s at a wine tasting, ensuring he doesn't miss a single note. What Soderbergh’s always been particularly good at, however, and what comes alive in No Sudden Move, is the kind of workaday professionalism of the heist. Even outlaws have to work within the system in order to rob from it, meaning everyone’s inevitably just a rat trying to scurry out from the maze.
Ed Solomon’s script leans into the absurdity of it all. Wertz, while being held hostage, tearfully warns his boss that he’s about to punch him if he’s not given what he came for. Back at home, Mary tries to shoo away a nosy neighbour, before looking out of the window, spotting said neighbour still lingering on the porch, and patly informing the man holding a gun to her head that, “I don’t think that’s the end of that.” No Sudden Move is best when it works in this lighter register, since Solomon’s attempts to weave in later references to corporate corruption and the racism driving urban planning don’t quite land with the same force.
And Soderbergh, once again working as his own cinematographer and editor (though sneakily credited as Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard), continues to play around with his fish-eye lenses, as they distort objects and dim the corners of the frame. Do those tricks even suit the story he’s telling? I’m not sure Soderbergh cares what the answer is. We’re just here for the ride.