It’s Detroit, 1954. A man fresh out of jail is approached with an offer: $5,000 to sit in a house for three hours and watch a man’s wife and kids while he is taken to pick up an important document. It sounds like easy money, right? Bad decisions, double-crosses and dead bodies follow from there in the crime thriller No Sudden Move (currently streaming on HBO Max).
Director Steven Soderbergh has shown he can tackle serious issues effectively in something like Traffic. He has also proven he is equally adept (if not more so) when dealing with genre material, as in Out of Sight, the Ocean’s trilogy or Logan Lucky. Here, he dabbles in the former, while mostly working in the latter. No Sudden Move is, on its surface, a smart, crafty, entertaining thriller with an excellent cast. As a genre exercise about a collection of criminals not quite as clever as they think they are, it is fantastic. However, the screenplay by Ed Solomon (who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on the HBO series Mosaic) makes space to use its time and place to comment on race, class and the auto industry. These two levels of the story never get in each other’s way. The cultural commentary enriches the crime plot, deepening the world these men move around in. The result is a genre entry with depth and one of the best movies of the year, thus far.
Viewers should experience the plot for themselves, so I don’t want to discuss it much. Instead, I’ll talk about the cast. Don Cheadle is Curt, out of jail due to overcrowding. He has drawn the ire of two different powerful gang bosses and sees this simple job as a quick way out. Cheadle is great here as a guy who watches before making a move and tries not to get himself into a situation he doesn’t see another way out of.
His reluctant partner is Ronald, played by Benicio Del Toro as someone who believes he is above the small-timers he is slumming it with. There is instant tension between the men (Ronald is hired second and refuses to get into the backseat of a car with a black man), yet there is nothing they can do about it. They need each other. They have a weird chemistry together that is fun to watch. Cheadle is no nonsense. Del Toro is full of reckless swagger.
The third biggest role belongs to David Harbour as Matt, the man whose home the guys invade. Their employer needs him to get a document from his boss that could have a big impact on the auto companies. Harbour has made his name by playing tough guys in projects such as Stranger Things, the awful Hellboy reboot or Black Widow (finally being released next week). Here, he is desperate, helpless and in over his head. Thinking of his other recent work, it is even more impressive to see what Harbour does as he gets insulted by his exasperated mistress or, especially, in his pathetic confrontation with his boss. He is very good.
The rest of the cast features Brendan Fraser, amusing in a small role as the man who gives Cheadle and Del Toro the job, Amy Seimetz as Harbour’s wife, Julia Fox as the woman Del Toro is sleeping with and Jon Hamm, wasted as a cop who is basically just a plot device. There are a couple of additional strong performances in significant moments, but they both come across as surprises, so I will keep them that way.
No Sudden Move is ingenious in the way one complication comes directly from another. Solomon’s script could have been too much for a two-hour movie. Soderbergh makes it flow beautifully by focusing on the people, instead of merely what happens to them. Since the people are legitimately enjoyable to watch and the twists come from their personalities, the pace never seems to slow, even during extended dialogue scenes.
Critics sometimes use the phrase “genre exercise” dismissively, as though something is only worthwhile if it breaks out of the confines of genre. With No Sudden Move, Steven Soderbergh displays once again that, done right, a genre exercise can be tremendously entertaining. And he is one of the best at them.
4½ out of 5
Don Cheadle as Curt Goynes
Benicio Del Toro as Ronald Russo
David Harbour as Matt Wertz
Julia Fox as Vanessa Capelli
Amy Seimetz as Mary Wertz
Brendan Fraser as Doug Jones
Jon Hamm as Joe Finney
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Ed Solomon