Steven Soderbergh remains one of the best filmmakers of our time, with a body of work ranging from “Sex, Lies & Videotape” (1989) to “Erin Brockovich” (2000), “Traffic” (2000) to “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001).
When he was tapped to produce this year’s pandemic Oscars, he rolled the dice and lost by moving Best Picture earlier in the broadcast, expecting the late Chadwick Boseman to win Best Actor to close the show — a gamble which backfired when Boseman’s win didn’t happen as planned.
Now, Soderbergh redeems himself with “No Sudden Move” (HBO Max), a neo-noir gem packed with star power, snappy dialogue and a complex plot that keeps us guessing, one that thankfully doesn’t overstay its welcome like Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” (2017).
Set in 1955 Detroit, criminals are brought together for a hostage job in a family home to retrieve a gangster’s “codebook” from a safe. When the job goes completely sideways, they have to work together to uncover who set them up and who is pulling the strings.
Don Cheadle (“Crash”) shines as the scratchy-voiced straight man Curt Goynes, while Benicio Del Toro (“The Usual Suspects”) provides comedic relief as the aloof Ronald Russo. Their first meeting is gold, a standoff over who gets to sit in the back seat of a car, neither wanting to sit in the front seat for fear of getting shot in the back of the head.
The film smartly spaces out famous faces — Brendan Fraser as the gangster who hires them; Kieran Culkin as a hotheaded accomplice, Jon Hamm as a stoic detective; Ray Liotta and Bill Duke as rival mob bosses; and finally Matt Damon as auto brass Mr. Big with a speech on “the illusion of control” like the late Ned Beatty in “Network” (1976).
As for the family taken hostage, David Harbour (“Stranger Things”) is fittingly sleazy as the father, Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) stands his ground as the brave son, and Amy Seimetz (“Upstream Color”) rises above the role of terrified housewife to save the film from ditzy girlfriends and floozy secretaries that proved the Achilles heel of “The Irishman” (2019).
Penned by screenwriter Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), the dialogue boasts killer gangster threats like, “Your body is going to end up in all 48 states at the same time!” It also features comedic banter, particularly a restaurant scene where Del Toro quips, “Wine is good for you. Ask Jesus.” Cheadle replies, “So is a clear head. Ask Pontius Pilate.”
Of course, witty dialogue alone doesn’t make a good script. The plot keeps us guessing, trying to figure out who double-crossed whom as Solomon remains several steps ahead of the audience. The result is a neo-noir that’s more tonally consistent than “Motherless Brooklyn” (2019), which badly misjudged its comedic handling of Tourette’s Syndrome.
In “No Sudden Move,” the noir music by composer David Holmes (“Killing Eve”) is a distinct homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for “Chinatown” (1974), featuring high-pitched violins to punctuate key moments such as an empty safe, an empty bag or Hamm’s first appearance.
From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh chooses his shots wisely: filming through the window of a door as a neighbor pays a visit during a gripping hostage situation; tilting side-to-side in Dutch angles on a balcony as a character threatens to toss a man over, and delivering a dynamic low-angle shot looking up as a character opens a pivotal safe.
Even the 1950s period production design provides visual treats for the discerning eye. Notice how the living room lamps are symbolic fish sculptures as the mother tells her son, “We all make choices. Your dad is going to have to deal with the consequences of his.” Returning to this scene offers new meaning after we know the ending of the film.
When the final puzzle piece is revealed, is the juice worth the squeeze? Detractors will say the plot is too convoluted, but hey, so was “The Big Sleep” (1946) — and that’s a classic. The end credits provide closing text to explain the broader scheme in historical layman’s terms, which is a cop-out by Soderbergh but perhaps a necessary one in this case.
Either way, I’ll take this movie any day for its realistic portrait of violence. It’s not just bullets spraying all over the place like so many action flicks. These gunshots are shocking because they are sparse. The dead don’t come back to life like in tentpole franchises. They’re in real danger. I miss stand-alone movies with real stakes and real consequences.
Short-attention-span filmmakers would be wise to follow Soderbergh’s restraint in “No Sudden Move,” which instantly joins Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” (2015) and Steve McQueen’s “Widows” (2018) as one of the finest crime flicks in recent memory.