Working off Ed Solomon’s screenplay, Steven Soderbergh photographed, edited, and directed HBO Max’s big 4th of July offering, No Sudden Move, which has very little to offer outside of cool-looking hats.
Set in Detroit in 1954, things start beautifully when Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), a small-time criminal fresh from prison, is offered much-needed easy money for a few hours’ work. Joining him are fellow small-timers Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin). The three men only know each other by way of reputation, and the job is advertised as an easy one: babysit (i.e., kidnap) a middle-class family, so Dad’s compelled to retrieve something someone wants from a safe.
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From here, it’s all double crosses, triple crosses, betrayals, and switcharoos… It’s all style and plot-plot-plot and nothing to sink your teeth into.
Soderbergh knows where to put a camera, how to stage a scene and coax superb performances out of his actors. The 1954 production design is equally impressive. So No Sudden Move is watchable, it’s just not satisfying, and the cryptic dialogue frequently makes it difficult to follow the story. For example, if you haven’t memorized everyone’s last name (and there are many players), you have no idea who’s being talked about.
Things really fall apart near the end when the movie suddenly decides it wants to be About Something Important. Matt Damon shows up in what’s staged as a show-stopping scene that has him making thunderous proclamations like Ned Beatty in Network. He bloviates about race, class, pollution, and money. But, unfortunately, it’s contrived and shoe-horned. I’m sorry, but having a character talk about something doesn’t make your movie about something. This is a transparently desperate act of Woketard window dressing.
It’s not difficult to grasp what Soderbergh wants to do: deliver a period noir about an unlikely partnership in a world filled with puppet masters. The problem is, that’s not a theme. No Sudden Move isn’t even a movie about the depths to which desperate men are willing to fall — a classic noir theme in classics such as The Killing and Asphalt Jungle. It’s also not about greed (Chinatown) or social status (Panic in the Streets), or revenge (The Big Heat). All it’s about is people doing stuff to other people without the characters or relationships developing in any meaningful way.
We’re told Curt wants this money to retrieve some land stolen from him, but this is exposition to justify a plot, not actual motivation. As good as Cheadle is (and he and del Toro are both outstanding), his character is too compartmentalized for us to feel an emotional connection and too competent to worry about — which is another problem. There’s no tension or sense of peril, even as Curt and Russell continue to push their luck.
Probably out of the understandable fear of being labeled a racist by the Woketard Gestapo, Soderbergh and his screenwriter fail to give Curt any serious flaws. Throughout, he’s smarter than everyone, never caught off guard, has no vices, and is therefore not terribly interesting. Russell, on the other hand, is loaded with vices, and del Toro can never not be interesting, but he’s not the one pushing the action or making things happen. He’s a bystander. An interesting bystander, but still a bystander.
Steven Soderbergh has plenty of great movies left in him. Sadly, this one’s pretty forgettable.
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