It would be a fool’s errand to try to tell Steven Soderbergh, director and writer of No Sudden Move, what to do. The enigmatic filmmaker has followed his own muse ever since his debut over 30 years ago with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. This has sometimes led to movies audiences can easily connect with, like his Ocean’s trilogy, Erin Brokovich, and Magic Mike. Other times it’s led to projects like Schizopolis, Bubble, and The Girlfriend Experience, which are so insular, they seem to be made only to tickle whatever Soderbergh’s fancy might have been at the time.
But the Oscar-winner kept his commercially-viable projects and personal experiments apart from each other, either as a balance between personal ambition and job security or just for kicks. Since his return to feature film directing with Logan Lucky, however, Soderbergh has seemingly been experimenting with the layout of his bigger films. His last three movies (High Flying Bird, The Laundromat, and Let Them All Talk) have taken stories that could’ve been flashy or witty and made them dry, under-stylized procedurals with big name stars running in circles and spouting bland dialogue. Why he’s doing this is unclear, but unfortunately, he shows no sign of stopping.
The latest case study of Soderbergh’s souring output is No Sudden Move, now on HBO Max, which is a would-be caper that manages to take blackmail, gangsters, and how America’s early auto giants effectively bulldozed Detroit in the 1950s and makes it all seem boring.
It’s 1954, and recently-released con Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is asked by the mysterious Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) to “babysit” the wife and children of lowly businessman Matt Wertz (David Harbour) at gunpoint. While Wertz is forced by wildcard Charley (Kieran Culkin) to retrieve a mysterious item from his boss’s safe, Curt and laid-back Ronnie Russo (Benecio del Toro) keep things cool at home…until things go south. Ronnie and Curt end up on the run from Jones and rely on their connections with rival Detroit mob bosses (Ray Liotta and Bill Duke) while also evading a mysterious local cop (Jon Hamm).
No Sudden Move has a subdued and rather gloomy attitude about itself.
You’d think Soderbergh returning to the realm of sharp-dressed crooks screwing each other over would be a cause to celebrate, since making movies about those guys in Out of Time, The Limey, and his Ocean’s movies are what certified him as a major Hollywood player. And to be fair to him and his production team, No Sudden Move does have touches of 50s swagger in its execution. While the costumes, cars, and criminal behaviors certainly fit the time, No Sudden Move has a subdued and rather gloomy attitude about itself that’s reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s mournful crime epic The Irishman.
But the look of No Sudden Move sucks out all the color of 50s style into a dull paste, no doubt matching the outlook of these tired out thieves just trying to get by rather than get rich. And that would be an engrossing story on its own, but it’s not the only one shoved into the movie. As it was with his last three features, Soderbergh has too many characters and subplots swimming around No Sudden Move yet he approaches all of it with the same amount of dim energy that makes it seem like he’s bored with his own story. The script from Ed Solomon (Men in Black, the Bill & Ted series) has a lot of moving parts to it that aren’t given enough room to breathe in the movie’s 115-minute runtime, laying out its contents with the bluntness of a PBS documentary.
There’s no flow in No Sudden Move, not out of anything disjointed but more because it never leaves the first gear of excitement. It has its moments of genuine tension and touches of humor, but they’re few and far between. That also hurts the status of the supporting characters, who come in and out of the movie with such little fanfare and rushed exposition that it borders on “blink and you miss them” territory.
At least the actors look happy to be there, especially Cheadle. Through his gravelly voice and well-worn moustache, Cheadle is a damn fine lead for this collection of haggard old men. He never raises his voice, but Cheadle’s stern presence and no-fuss dialogue gives Curt the cool demeanor of the best movie gangsters while also making his world-weary attitude well-earned. For all the years he’s spent as a supporting actor, this could be a turning point in Cheadle’s career to a run of fleshed-out leading roles.
Brendan Fraser is incredibly intimidating as the heavy for the Detroit mob.
Speaking of career turns, Fraser is incredibly intimidating as the heavy for the Detroit mob. He starts soft-spoken as the devil whispering on the shoulders of Curt and Ronnie, but it’s when he gets agitated and cagey trying to reel-in the plot (better than the director can) that he deserves to be a lead again. Even in his older age and more somber look, he’s still got hints of his 90s leading-man charisma. Though Harbour has an overall minimal presence on the overall plot, he still commits to the wimpy and neutered nature of Matt’s ho-hum life.
But again, No Sudden Move has too many characters shoved into its limited runtime, and none of them have enough room to leave a proper impression. Del Toro’s behavior is so relaxed and unfazed by everything going on, that it’s hard to tell if it’s movie star charisma or that he couldn’t care less about what he’s doing. Liotta and Duke have their own histories being badasses throughout their careers, so that’s the only things giving them actual presence in the movie and not the muddled dialogue they’re given (though at least Duke also has some cool sunglasses). And amongst all that, there’s barely enough room to recognize Julia Fox (Uncut Gems) going from a Betty Crocker wannabe to the surprise femme fatale. Not that the world needs more remakes, but if there have ever been talks of a Serial Mom remake, Fox should be first in line.
Soderbergh has been known to take cold human behavior and make it cool to watch. With No Sudden Move, that transformative power and spark seem to have left him. The pieces are there, with a stacked cast and juicy story to see realized in front of a well-constructed playground of faded 20th century society. But Soderbergh’s attempt to see what a crime thriller without the typical Hollywood thrills would be like ends up feeling hollow and unfocused. His work ethic is now akin to Woody Allen, rolling out a new movie every year with minimal hype and even lesser stakes. But unlike Allen, whatever artistic touch that made Soderbergh’s prior work stand out is waning. It’s concerning when watching his latest movie feels more like a household chore than an exciting escape.
No Sudden Move is now available to stream on HBO Max. You can watch the official trailer here.