It sounds odd to say that a movie about rapacious capitalism, systemic racial bias, corporate corruption, and organized crime in 1950s Detroit has a “summer vibe.” But thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s light touch with a heist caper, that’s the mood of No Sudden Move (premiering on HBO Max on Thursday), a modestly scaled neo-noir that combines the packed ensemble cast and shaggy-dog plotting of Soderbergh films like The Limey or Logan Lucky with the embedded social critique of The Informant! or The Girlfriend Experience.
We first meet Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle, in top form) making his way from the crumbling Black Bottom neighborhood to a fancier white district, backed by the uneasy rhythms of David Holmes’ jazz-inflected score. Curt walks in the dead center of the street, for reasons that don’t need explaining; as a Black man in a gentrifying city—a man, we soon learn, who has just been released from prison—he can’t afford to let down his guard by getting caught in the shadows. Nor can he afford to turn down the $5,000 fee he is offered by the mysterious Jones (Brendan Fraser) to do what’s billed as a three-hour job for an unnamed local crime boss.
Curt soon finds himself teamed with two fellow small-time hustlers, the openly racist Ronald (Benicio Del Toro) and jittery live wire Charley (Kieran Culkin). Their task, Jones explains, is to “babysit” the family of Matt Wertz (David Harbour), a midlevel pencil-pusher at General Motors, while one of them accompanies Wertz to his office to retrieve a document. What exactly is on that piece of paper, and why so many powerful people are jockeying to get their hands on it, becomes more than a mere MacGuffin. In the movie’s final 10 minutes, a major movie star makes an uncredited cameo appearance to lay out for the hired gunmen and for the audience exactly what the document means and why it matters, both to the era the film is set in and to our own.
The script (by Ed Solomon, who also wrote Soderbergh’s TV series Mosaic, Men in Black, and all three Bill & Ted movies) never belabors its larger historical and political points. Indeed, the 11th-hour clarification comes so late and is over so fast that I for one could have done with a bit more belaboring. Like most of Soderbergh’s prior heist films, No Sudden Move is an intricately plotted crime story that makes the viewer piece together what’s going on at the same time the characters do. This approach provides plenty of propulsive forward motion, even if it also occasions more than a few moments of “wha?”
No Sudden Move hits its peak early in a jaggedly suspenseful home-invasion sequence in the suburban kitchen of the Wertz family. Mary (actor-director Amy Seimetz) is getting her two children (Noah Jupe and Lucy Holt) ready for school when the hastily assembled trio of crooks bursts in, masked and armed, demanding that her husband come with them to open a safe in his boss’s office. When he protests that he doesn’t even know the combination, one of the invaders snarks, “We hear you have the combo to his secretary.” The marital tension introduced by this revelation provides one of the movie’s best dramatic arcs, thanks to Seimetz’s standout performance as a tightly wound, chain-smoking housewife whose quilted floral bathrobe belies a steely core.
Less well developed is Curt’s history with his ex, Clarisse (Lauren LaStrada), whom he pays a visit in what feels like a piece of a storyline that’s been cut down. In general, the female characters in No Sudden Move tend to be underwritten, especially relative to how crucial they are to the plot’s unfolding. We learn little about the backstory of Vanessa (Uncut Gems discovery Julia Fox), who is both the girlfriend of Del Toro’s Ronald and the abused wife of local crime boss Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta), or about Paula (Frankie Shaw), the secretary at GM who is the fed-up mistress of the comically inept Matt Wertz.
There are other holes in the labyrinthine plot (which includes no fewer than two crime organizations, two home invasions, and two precious stolen documents). The initial meeting between Curt and Ronald establishes a racial tension between the two that seems to dissipate a few scenes later with no explanation, and an FBI agent investigating the link between the home invasion and the mob (Jon Hamm) enters the story too late and has too little time onscreen for the twist involving him to have much resonance.
But No Sudden Move isn’t a movie whose pleasures come from understanding every plot detail. As in a classic film noir, all you really need to know is that everyone is out for themselves and no one can be trusted. The movie opens on a vintage Warner Brothers logo, as if to nod at its resemblance to that studio’s low-budget crime dramas from the period when this movie is set—gritty thrillers like The Enforcer or I Died a Thousand Times. Soderbergh drives home the point by shooting several of the more shifty characters from Dutch angles, a classic noir framing that is the visual equivalent of that slightly off-kilter score. Hannah Beachler’s production design is beautifully detailed without being Hollywood-lavish: Detroit’s ongoing project of urban renewal (or as one Black character calls it, “Negro removal”) is established as much through the smart use of locations as through expository dialogue. The cinematography and editing—both by Soderbergh, under his longtime aliases of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard—are as elegant and nimble as they need to be without getting in the story’s way. And as should be the case with any good heist thriller, No Sudden Move gets both darker and funnier as the betrayals and double-crosses pile up.
If I had to rank Soderbergh’s crime-themed movies, this one would rank somewhere below Out of Sight and The Limey (what movie wouldn’t?) but above, say, Logan Lucky or the last two movies in the Ocean’s trilogy. The whole thing vanishes pretty quickly from memory once it’s over. But for that hour and a half of fluid, kinetic filmmaking, you are putty in the hands of Steven Soderbergh, a reliably pleasurable place to be.