3 out of 5 stars

Despite constant shifts in genre, style, and perhaps even quality throughout his career, Steven Soderbergh remains one of the most eclectic and distinguishable filmmakers working today. And since returning from his faux-retirement eight years ago, he’s been making films with a never-before-seen rapidity. The famed Ocean’s trilogy director has been churning out one or two movies every year since Logan Lucky (2017)—during which time he dipped into shooting on iPhones for Unsane (2018) and High Flying Bird (2019)—and his streak of crime thrillers has found a new chapter in the star-studded No Sudden Move.

From the opening few minutes, it’s clear No Sudden Move is wearing its influences on its sleeve, with old-fashioned opening credits laid over the blue-hued streets of 1954 Detroit, shot through an anamorphic lens so distorted it veers dangerously close to becoming a fisheye. Walking down these streets is Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), a hired gun newly released from prison and looking for a new job in order to reclaim a plot of land he claims was taken from him. He finds employment quickly enough, as he’s introduced to Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), a middleman who assigns him with a relatively simple three-hour task: hold the family of a General Motors accountant named Matt Wertz (David Harbour) hostage while he retrieves an important document from his boss’s office.

Curt’s paired with two other gunmen for the job: Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley Barnes (Kieran Culkin), none of whom even remotely recognise each other or Curt and, as a result, remain neurotically paranoid in the hours leading up to the job itself. As the three of them break into the Wurtz’s house the next morning and hold Matt’s wife, Mary (Amy Seimetz), and their two children, Matthew Jr. (Noah Jupe) and Peggy (Lucy Holt), at gunpoint, the job that unfolds in the subsequent minutes ends in disaster. Matt, unable to find the proper documents at the office, brings to the criminals fake ones in a rush, and a skirmish between the three gunmen ultimately leaves a head-shot cadaver in its aftermath. What unfolds from there’s a somewhat convoluted, drab, yet still eminently entertaining and competently assembled crime film that exposes, in typical Soderbergh fashion, the futility of violence in the pursuit of financial capitalistic ambition.

Perhaps the most obvious appeal of a film with this kind of mid-budget caliber is the unbelievably stacked cast it boasts; a roster that somehow isn’t fully represented in the bold-printed opening credits that No Sudden Move proudly puts on display. Ed Solomon’s (Bill and Ted Face the Music) screenplay, however complex and twist-laden to a fault it may be, ensures that each and every one of the characters get at least one chance to shine. And the actors leap on that chance whenever they can.

Cheadle and Del Toro are the highlights, cleverly pulling off a sort of push-pull dynamic in which Curt and Ronald’s partnership is laden with a paradoxical sense of both trust and uneasiness. While they’re certainly sticking together as best they can to find a better chance of making it out alive, both actors make clear through their subtly nervous demeanours and conversations that their characters are ultimately in it for their own self interests. And over the course of the film’s narrative, they each find themselves having to attend to unfinished business and separate goals that conflict with what the other wants.

Of course, the supporting cast behind the two headliners’ heist is filled with many other notable actors worthy of mention. David Harbour (Black Widow), for instance, remains relatively effective at portraying the rather bumbling and incompetent Matt Wertz, whose constant efforts to keep his family safe are thwarted by several personal complications that, try has he might, he can’t get under control; one of them being his affair with one of his secretaries, Paula (Frankie Shaw). That’s not to mention the strain said affair inevitably puts on his relationship with his wife, Mary, whose frustration director-and-actor Amy Seimetz (She Dies Tomorrow) efficiently conveys in a mix of mutedly fearful and bitterly exhausted tones, all in the fair amount of screentime she has.

Further down the line is Ray Liotta’s Goodfellas (1990)-evoking performance as mobster boss Frank Capaldi; Julia Fox (Uncut Gems) as the endearing yet opportunistically vicious Vanessa Capaldi; Jon Hamm (Baby Driver) as the no-nonsense organized crime detective Joe Finney; and a notable cameo from a frequent Soderbergh collaborator that’ll have the director’s most devoted fans nodding in recognition at even my mentioning of their professional relationship. Simply put, there’s most likely something (or rather, someone) here for viewers across the board to enjoy, and for a film interested in conveying the elaborate yet meaningless hierarchy of capitalist power structures, having numerous A-listers portraying each of said structures’ respective, regimented levels is a clever way of getting such a message across.

Underscoring all of these characters is a competently established sense of atmosphere, tone, and accuracy to the era—-the facet where Soderbergh’s most notable talents as a filmmaker come most into play. His collaborators clearly share these talents as well; every element of Hannah Beachler’s production design and Marci Rodgers’s costume design contribute to the refreshingly energetic direction that Soderbergh’s films ever so consistently exude. Every outfit and mask these characters wear, every generically suburban house found alongside the increasingly gentrified streets of Detroit, every chrome-plated and bright-coloured car on the highway, and every piece of elaborately designed upper-class architecture works in service of a thrillingly tangible vision of 1950s USA, one that Soderbergh effectively captures on his camera with a blend of genuine suspense and sardonic comedy.

But if everything seems to be falling into place, if the atmosphere is well-constructed and the performers involved are all talented actors, why—frustratingly—does it seem like nobody in this film is bringing their absolute best to it? I’ve refrained from using more hyperbolic words of praise because of this, but perhaps it’s not the cast’s fault. We’ve seen better performances from these actors in the past, and the relatively limited amount of screentime the supporting cast receives thanks to the glut of characters in this film doesn’t really seem to be doing them or their impressive range of skills any favors. It’s also the only reason why Cheadle and Del Toro seem to be the big highlights; they’re featured on screen for the vast majority of the film’s runtime, giving them at least some room to develop their characters and flaunt some of their talents.

Most emblematic of this unused potential, however, is the fact that Soderbergh’s brisk direction and Solomon’s convoluted script are only ever interested in using parts of the film to develop and pursue an overindulgently expansive plot, which ends up leaving key personal details about certain characters uncomfortably vague, and abandons any greater discussion of the societal ailments of the time. Detroit’s long-held history of racial tension in the 1950s, for instance, is relegated to passing mentions and occasional slights; meanwhile, the monopolistic growth of the automobile industry and its reckless-abandon approach to environmental concerns is merely utilized as the overarching impetus to the heist that Curt and Ronald initially embark on. It seems inevitable, therefore, that there isn’t much room for the characters in this film to develop, particularly within this specific historical context—when said context is only used as a backdrop, it isn’t that hard to view these characters as mechanical pieces in a game that has a concretely set, singular goal.

That’s not to say, of course, that No Sudden Move wastes its potential. In fact, whenever it bets its chips on genuine suspense and musters comedy from its character’s panicked desperation, it pays off well enough for its caper-focused storyline to be a riveting and entertaining experience, and to that end, it’s a competently made film from a director who knows the ins and outs of the genre he’s working in. It’s just that No Sudden Move seems to be going all-in on such a brisk, thrill-seeking, twist-laden narrative that it ultimately ignores an abundance of noteworthy context outside of its primary focus. And when your setting is a growingly industrialised and gentrified Detroit in the pre-Civil Rights Movement era, there’s a lot of potential substance that ends up— quite disappointingly—used as mere background dressing as a result.

USA | 2021 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Steven Soderbergh.
writer: Ed Solomon.
starring: Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Craig Grant, Julia Fox, Frankie Shaw & Bill Duke.