Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh has always been a champion for the “cool little movie,” particularly since he emerged from his short-lived retirement in 2016. His recent output has mostly consisted of witty and thoughtful dramas that are small in scope and budget, playgrounds for some of Hollywood’s best actors without the pressure of Oscar Stakes. No Sudden Move — his latest film which debuted on HBO Max on July 1st — is an ideal example of this ouvre, a stylish and fun dramedy with a star-heavy cast that entertains first and enlightens second.
The Babysitters Club
No Sudden Move opens with gangster Curtis Goynes (Don Cheadle) walking the streets of 1954 Detroit, just days out of prison. Before he went away, Curt made an enemy of his boss Watkins (Bill Duke, High Flying Bird) by stealing and hiding his “code book,” an invaluable record of Watkins’ bets, bribes, and other illicit transactions. Having burned this crucial bridge in the world of organized crime, Curt can’t be too particular about where his next job is coming from, but he’s immediately suspicious when a white mobster of ambiguous affiliation offers him $5000 (about $50,000 in 2021 dollars) for a mere three hours of work.
With little choice, Curt takes the gig “babysitting” the family of businessman Matt Wertz (David Harbour, Stranger Things) at gunpoint while another member of the crew, Charley (Kieran Culkin, Succession), forces Matt to retrieve secret documents from his office. Curt is forced to work closely with Ron Russo (Benecio Del Toro), a flagrantly racist hired gun who’s got his own reasons to be looking over his shoulder. As you might have guessed, this seemingly simple job goes awry and launches Curt and company into a much grander game of gangland politics and corporate espionage.
The plot of No Sudden Move grows increasingly intricate (sometimes confusingly so) as more characters and subplots come into focus. It’s a tangled web of conspiracies, affairs, and missed connections that I’m not sure how well I could fully explain even if I were interested in spoiling it for you. What keeps the story from feeling overwhelming is its darkly comedic tone and the magnetism of its cast, who make each individual scene captivating and entertaining even when the whole becomes a little much. No Sudden Move will go minutes between laughs, but the laughs are big and the quiet moments are never boring.
A Normal Monday
The comedy of No Sudden Move comes from the collision of the dramatic and the mundane. As facile as this comparison is, I was reminded of one of my favorite devices from The Sopranos, which draws a lot of its own dark humor from the bland details of criminal life. Often, a scene in The Sopranos would continue for a few seconds past its narrative utility, revealing a peek at some relationship or routine that is important to a character but has no bearing on the story as a whole. This makes the world of the story feel immediately more relatable, because the extraneous details of your life do not disappear when you’re in the middle of something important.
No Sudden Move contains a few of these “Sopranos cuts” and other details that embed you into the criminal characters’ workaday world, balanced against how traumatic these same events are to the civilians sharing the scene with them. Ron, having a rough day, gently drapes a blanket over a seated hostage’s head so that he can relax. Charlie insists that his captive stop for french fries before he can return to his family. A character struggles to catch his mistress up on the plot so far because they’re resuming an argument that predates the start of the film. These moments are not only funny, but also important to balancing the reality of No Sudden Move against some of its more bizarre events and outlandish characters.
This juxtaposition is personified by the milquetoast Matt Wertz, who is totally out of place in a crime thriller. Wertz, portrayed by the six-foot-two, broad-shouldered David Harbour, is introduced as a sturdy head of household, but this is a very fragile facade. Wertz is revealed to be a pathetic mess almost immediately, and spends the run of the film establishing new lows for himself. Harbour delivers No Sudden Move’s broadest performance (though Julia Fox comes close), deliberately standing out in a film where most of the characters speak softly and deliver more subtle stabs of wit.
Old Gangsters Never Die, They Just Get Blown Away
At the head of the ensemble are Don Cheadle and Benecio Del Toro, each portraying a down-and-out gangster with a target on his back. As Curt, our dramatic lead, Cheadle mostly gets to play it cool, grinding some Redd Foxx grit into his voice and staying one step ahead of most of the other players. But in the moments that really explore what makes his character tick, like a brief encounter with a woman from his past (played by Detroit actress Lauren LaStrada), we get to see him on his back foot, emotionally. Cheadle is 56, and while the role doesn’t necessarily demand it, he’s styled to play into his age. There’s a poignancy to this, to the notion that Curt has been playing the game for decades and still has nothing to show for it, that helps to explain why he’s willing to take such bold risks. He knows that he doesn’t have much time left to do something that matters.
Del Toro’s Ronald Russo, on the other hand, is more of a classic jerkoff gangster who thinks he’s the smartest guy in every room. He’s not comically stupid, but you can see why he never made it in the legit business world, and why he, also a middle-aged gangster, still hasn’t seen the heights. Russo proudly spouts some era-appropriate racist rhetoric, and to the credit of Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon (the Bill & Ted guy?!) there’s no effort to pull any Green Book bullshit here. Curt and Ron aren’t forced to work together in this film in order to solve racism in 48 hours, it’s to remind the audience at every turn how much Curt is underestimated and undervalued, even to the extent of having a 30% lesser bounty on his head.
Curt and Ron are on high alert due to their fragile relationships with the heads of their respective crime families, Watkins and Capelli, played by Bill Duke and Ray Liotta, respectively. Watkins is the sole source of gangster glamor in the film, impeccably dressed and quietly intimidating. Capelli, on the other hand, is just an angry and tired old man whose skin looks dried and worn out like a retired pro wrestler’s. (Appropriately, his right hand man, played by Brendan Fraser, both looks and sounds like WWE promoter Paul Heyman when he gets angry.) Each makes the most of limited screen time, but the film’s best antagonist is a cameo appearance too good to spoil here.
It’s difficult to discuss the rest of the ensemble in detail without revealing too much of the plot, but the entire cast has come to play. As Mary Wertz, Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) sells the terror and emotional fallout of her home’s invasion while also delivering a few of the film’s funniest lines from half-court. Frankie Shaw (star and creator of SMILF) stands firm in her small role as foil to Harbour’s increasingly rubbery comedic performance, while Julia Fox gets to play more theatrical against quieter costars Del Toro and Liotta. It seems a bit wasteful to cast Jon Hamm in an easy and familiar role as a garden-variety federal agent, but in an ensemble this big and a tone this delicate, not everyone is going to have room to show off.
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No Sudden Move’s period setting is not just a matter of style. The story is set after the destruction of Black Bottom, the Detroit neighborhood that thrived with Black families and Black-owned businesses in the 1920s and 30s before it was very deliberately razed as part of Mayor Albert Cobo’s “urban renewal” agenda. Curt Goynes no longer has a home in his city, and is seeking restitution any way he can get it. This isn’t the only piece of Detroit or American history that’s touched upon in No Sudden Move — I went home from the theater with a short list of real-life events to look up. And where other period pieces might be conceived to comfort an audience with how much has changed, No Sudden Move is of the less sinister variety that reminds you that the bullshit of the past prevails into the present so long as there are never consequences for those responsible.
On the matter of the film’s sense of place, Soderbergh (his own cinematographer as usual) shoots much of No Sudden Move on what appears to be an aggressive wide angle lens that warps the periphery of the frame. (This is my educated guess, and I’m admittedly a novice in the study of cinematography and recalling my observations from a single screening.) This technically gets more of a scene into a shot, but squeezes that extra information around the rest of the image. The effect is claustrophobic, even in outdoor establishing shots, and gives a simple pan across an office hallway a discomfiting shift in parallax. Soderbergh shot three of his last four features with the smallest cameras and least equipment possible and has not yet discussed the tech specs of this production, but I’m eager to learn more about this creative decision and whether there’s some “shooting small” twist to how it was accomplished.
No Sudden Move is a welcome addition to Soderbergh’s post-”retirement” filmography, a period that has yielded five features in only four years with another already in production. Invigorated by the relative ease and flexibility of modern digital filmmaking, he seems poised to pump out something new every nine months or so. Soderbergh’s recent output, first for Netflix, now for HBO Max, is evidence that the streaming era doesn’t have to kill the small feature film, that crime thrillers, dramedies and the like don’t need to be stretched out into eight-hour miniseries in order to get made, and that, while the window to do so will likely remain pretty narrow, there’s still a reason to go see them on the big screen.