A film review by Craig J. Koban July 27, 2021


2021, R, 115 mins.

Don Cheadle as Curt Goynes  /  Benicio Del Toro as Ronald Russo  /  David Harbour as Matt Wertz  /  Ray Liotta as Frank Capelli  /  Jon Hamm as Joe Finney  /  Brendan Fraser as Doug Jones  /  Kieran Culkin as Charley  /  Amy Seimetz as Mary Wertz  /  Julia Fox as Vanessa Capelli

Directed by Steven Soderbergh  /  Written by Ed Solomon


I usually lament when a proven veteran director goes back to the genre well, so to speak, but when your name is Steven Soderbergh and (a) you have nothing to prove to cement your stature in the industry and (b) you're so damn confident in the genre in question then it's really hard to argue with the choice.  

I vividly remember when the Academy Award winner announced his retirement (yeah...right) way back in 2013 after releasing SIDE EFFECTS, which in actuality was more of a self-imposed break.  He continued to break the boundaries of the art form, whether it be working with streaming partners (HIGH FLYING BIRD) or even employing avant garde shooting methods (like using iPhones for UNSANE).  Soderbergh once again teams with a streaming giant in HBO MAX for his period crime caper thriller NO SUDDEN MOVE, which may seem like easy going comfort food territory for the acclaimed filmmaker, but he nevertheless constructs a fascinating tale of betrayals and double crosses filled with a colorful menagerie of doomed characters, many of which seem in well over their heads. 

The well oiled script by Ed Solomon (yes, of BILL AND TED trilogy fame) opens in 1950's Detroit and by introducing us to one of the many aforementioned doomed characters in Curt Goyners (Don Cheadle), who just got released from the slammer and needs to secure some quick cash to make it out of the city and into a fresh start.  He seems willing to do anything for a buck to secure his freedom, even joining the likes of Ronald (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin) on the advice of his new boss/recruiter in Jones (Brendan Fraser) for what seems, initially at least, like an easy assignment.  They break their way into the home of Matt (David Harbour...man...this cast!), and use the threat of violence against him and his wife (Amy Seimetz) and his kids (the eldest played by A QUIET PLACE's Noah Jupe): Unless he breaks into the safe of his boss to secure a much sought after item, then they're all goners.  The trio of crooks also have leverage against the poor and hapless Matt because they know that he's secretly sleeping with his secretary behind his wife's back, meaning that Matt is really between a rock and a hard place.

Speaking of tough predicaments, Curt has crossed the wrong paths of some serious heavy hitting crime lords in the city, one of which is Watkins (Bill Duke...like...man...this cast!), while Ronald has been having an affair with Vanessa (Julia Fox), who happens to be the wife of powerful mob boss Frank Capelli (played by former GOODFELLA himself, Ray Liotta).  To say that Curt and Ronald are stressed about the thought of heading towards violent fates with two of the most prominent and dangerous criminals in the city is an understatement, which adds substantial pressure being placed on both of them to succeed in their current caper and get the hell out of town in one piece.  Rather unavoidably, things go south for everyone of these players pretty fast, with bodies piling up and unpredictable roadblocks impeding their success at every turn.  The longer this caper continues the more convoluted it becomes for all.  In pure Soderbergh-ian fashion, NO SUDDEN MOVE features desperate lowlifes doing desperate things to escape certain death, and as the film unfolds it becomes both darkly amusing and unnerving to watch in equal dosages.



And...man...this cast!  

I can't say or emphasize it enough, but Soderbergh may have amassed his best performance ensemble in many a moon here, some of which have worked with him multiple times before, whereas some are new to the squad.  One of the simple pleasures of watching NO SUDDEN MOVES is in the character introduction sections and seeing one great headliner after another make their presence felt.  Aside from the huge treat of seeing the superb Bill Duke appear here playing a truly frightening and imposing criminal that's scary just in his stillness alone, we then get to witness Ray Liotta joyously chew scenery as a mafia leader.  I also admired the against type casting of Brendan Fraser, and I'm sure audience members have fond memories of him playing adventure heroes in pulpy delights like THE MUMMY films, but here he inhabits a whole different type of duplicitous minded lowlife.  Also, it's been so long since he appeared in a film in a meaningful role, so his inclusion here was most welcoming. 

Soderbergh and Solomon also give NO SUDDEN MOVE a gangbusters solid opening, which mostly transpires in the tight confines of Matt's family home and kitchen, and the uneasy atmosphere of dread and uncertainty of what's to come for these victims lures us in (it doesn't help matters either that every gang has a trigger happy and hot headed lunatic, in this case Culkin's Charley, who plays the role with a throw caution to the wind hostility).  As the screenplay ventures outside of Matt's home and accompanies him to his place of work the movie becomes even denser and more layered with stressful complications, which further leads to more twisting and turning of the narrative trajectory.  Patience is a large virtue in Soderbergh's overall approach, and NO SUDDEN MOVE is a crime thriller that's not decidedly high on action or violence (although it contains both), but there's a leisurely pace to the events unfolding that respects audience attention spans.  He wants to immerse us in the proceedings with slow simmering suspense versus titillating us with fisticuffs and gun battles.  That technique is also crucial in allowing viewers to get into the headspaces of all of these characters and understand what makes them tick and how their ulterior motives may get the better of them in the end.

Solomon's screenplay contributions here are as significant as Soderbergh's assured hand and eye behind the camera.  On paper, there are just so damn many characters here all vying for attention, but Solomon manages to have them all coalesce smoothing together and without any of them hijacking the whole film from one another.  Then there's the intrinsically fascinating hook/MacGuffin of the picture (which I won't spoil here, but let's just say it involves then emerging and potentially ground breaking technology in the auto industry), which adds a whole added layer of historical interest to the story.  Ultimately, where Solomon's script really shines is in how it adheres to one central conceit: Crooks making many cardinal blunders while trying to one up each other...and while all of them have their eyes on the same prize.  One defining trait to the schemers on display here is that many of them are just plain careless...and sometimes in idiotic ways.  NO SUDDEN MOVE is not a chronicle of criminal masterminds, but rather distressed hoodlums that can't see more than a move or two ahead, which often leads to preventable mistakes happening. 

But, yeah, when it comes right down to it NO SUDDEN MOVE is certainly a bit on the overly familiar side as far as Soderbergh's filmography goes.  We get criminal ex-cons needing one last score to secure freedom on the outside...we get ominous power brokers controlling everything and everyone...we get agents of the law that may or may not be lawful...and, yes, we get a caper that goes horribly wrong (these conventions are as old as the genre). These are minor quibbles, because what alienated me the most while watching NO SUDDEN MOVE was the usually potent cinematic stylist in Soderbergh employing some aesthetic tricks and choices here that become insanely obtrusive and frankly distracting as the film progresses.  Soderbergh has always been respected as a maverick that tries to buck stylistic status quos, but here he uses distorted, fisheye lens so much throughout that the technique draws too much unwarranted attention for how pretentious it is (we get it, skewed camera positions and disjointed focal points mirrors the crookedness of these characters).  Considering that NO SUDDEN MOVE is trying to be an old fashioned and classical genre exercise, why Soderbergh didn't just utilize a more economical and classic visual style here is beyond me.  The film is simply hard to watch in parts, which is a shame.  

Still, this is nevertheless a fully engaging period caper with a bravura cast, slick scripting, and is chalk full of cynical lowlifes up to no good.  There's no radical reinvention of the genre wheel here by Soderbergh, but the end results are satisfying enough that you'll come out commending the effort.  And very few active filmmakers working today can spin well worn cinematic wheels as good as Soderbergh.  

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