Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move is deviously sexy. Not in that sweaty between the sheets way best enjoyed up against a wall. The subtle eroticism comes from what’s under the sheets and behind the walls. Every character has something to hide, and nothing to say about it. Secrets are like mascara, alibis are fedoras. Everybody wants something, but they won’t say what it is. The biggest villains want things to disappear, and they certainly don’t want anybody talking about it.
No Sudden Move is a heist film, but don’t go in expecting Ocean’s 11, in spite of the all-star cast. This is a theft worth savoring, and Soderbergh gives the players room to breathe. Of course, any of those breaths can be a character’s last, which becomes apparent very quickly. Most of the other information trickles out like blood from exit wounds, as the film captures the most muted tones of classic film noir. The body count isn’t the most exciting part of the movie, though. It’s the ulterior motives.
Brendan Fraser plays a button man named Jones who is putting a three-man team together for a contract job. Don Cheadle’s Curt Goynes is newly out of prison and needs the scratch. Benicio Del Toro’s Ronald Russo is a dapper professional who doesn’t like having to look over his shoulder, and could use cold cash to improve his view. Kieran Culkin plays Charley Barnes, and he wears ulterior motives on his lapel. He comes into the movie looking like he’s just finished burying a body.
It all begins with a simple plan. Just a few hours’ work. Two of the mobsters have to babysit a family while the other one escorts the dad into work so he can pick up some papers. It’s almost the plot of The Desperate Hours, the classic 1955 home invasion hostage thriller which starred Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. But that’s just the opening riff of a landlocked surf tune as No Sudden Move quickly rides a different wave on increasingly treacherous waters.
Set in 1954, No Sudden Move lets the Motor City live up to its name. Before Motown churned out hits, Detroit was best known for pumping out cars. Those factory-line manufactured vehicles pumped out emissions, darkening skylines like Soderbergh clouds his intent. Written by Ed Solomon, this is as far from his work on Men in Black or Bill and Ted as can be imagined. There are no gadgets in sight, and the comedy is so subtle, you sometimes have to strain your ears to hear it. Like much of the dialogue, everything about the film is low key. The angriest threats come out as barely perceptible whispers, while the beatings are often telegraphed.
“I’m going to punch you now, sir,” Matt Wertz (David Harbour) advises his boss in a desperate scene. The heretofore mild-mannered, slightly bumbling, accountant for General Motors knows full well how this will affect any future job performance evaluation, but presses on with his blow-by-blow accounting. “I’m punching you. This is gonna be a punch.” This is one of very few warnings issued during the run of the film. Most of the assaults are sucker punches, coming from unexpected blind spots.
Everyone in the film is corrupt, and everybody gets double-crossed. Mertz thinks he can sweet talk his way into a safe because he’s been screwing his boss’ secretary, played by Frankie Shaw. Russo has been having a very dangerous affair with his boss’ wife Vanessa, played by Julia Fox. And her husband isn’t just any boss. He’s Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta), who is in charge of organized crime in Detroit. The scene which confirms any suspicions about the affair is a short film in itself.
Curt came out of prison with a plan. He stashed a suitcase with a codebook he hopes will get him off the hook with crime lord Aldrich Watkins (Bill Duke) and help him earn enough cash to buy back some land he claims was taken from him. The entire film is color-coded. Goynes’ property was taken during the city’s “urban renewal” phase, when whole neighborhoods were seized from African-American homeowners through corporate and court-approved eminent domain. A Black bellhop or waiter might give a knowing nod and wink to Curt during perilous maneuvers around white pursuers. Russo is paid more than Goynes to do the job, and his bounty is higher when the mob wants recourse.
Cheadle is quietly commanding as Goynes, the smartest of the freelance criminals. He’s a hustler who has a messy past with the gangsters and knows how to make things happen on the fly. Russo is a little dim but smart enough to be suspicious of everyone. “Sit in the front seat,” he tells Goynes when they first meet. He doesn’t want to be in the prone shotgun position. Goynes and Russo form an uneasy partnership when they realize they’ve been set up and were supposed to be eliminated after the job. They realize the document they stole is worth a bundle, set out to skip the middleman, and get their payday from the highest bidder. The scheme is improvised as the characters go along, and the plot gleefully follows. The big picture comes together more like a jigsaw puzzle than a blueprint, and it’s an engineering marvel.
The cars, clothes, architecture, and pork pie hats of the time are expertly recreated by production designer Hannah Beachler. And of course, Jon Hamm looks like a period piece no matter where he’s set. His detective Joe Finney comes on the scene to investigate an improbable act of self-defense when one of the intruding trio winds up on the floor at Mertz’s house. The accountant’s wife Mary (Amy Seimetz) and daughter (Lucy Holt) stick to an agreed story, but his son, played by Noah Jupe, has a harder time keeping secrets, the most valuable asset in a film like this.
The detective is keeping things pretty close to his vest as well, though there is one scene where he appears to hide his darkest deeds in plain sight. No Sudden Move expertly reveals how the most sinister of crimes are committed in full view of the public.
For all the criminals, cutthroats, and scoundrels of the film, the most vile villain is Mr. Big. Played with a smarmy grin and privileged authority by Matt Damon, he is not a mob kingpin in perfect pinstripes. But he is scarier than Luca Brasi in The Godfather, the book, not the movie. There is no conscience. There is no regret, something even Brasi had. There is only the bottom line, and he keeps his ledgers in the black.
No Sudden Move is pure, old-fashioned cinema art. The film even opens on a vintage Warner Bros. logo. Soderbergh trades in his iPhone for old model cameras and lenses, and the only special effects are the same skewered camera angles used during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The characters come across as genuinely desperate, like the crime crew in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 crime noir The Killing, and their final payoff is as poignantly unsatisfying. Good things only seem to happen to bad people. But it’s by design.
No Sudden Move is available to stream on HBO Max.