No Sudden Move is one of those movies that feels like the filmmaker had a good movie in his head but he never bothered trying to translate it to the audience.
In the past 20 years or so, there’s been a trend towards filmmakers-as-magicians, performing sleight of hand and withholding information and tricking audiences before the big reveal. BRAAAAAHM. You’ve been incepted! But making us care about fictional strangers is still the greatest trick of all, and occasionally that requires giving us more information, not less.
Steven Soderbergh directs this HBO Max streamer, his first of 2021, after one feature in 2020 and three features plus a short in 2019, by far the best of which was his basketball movie, High Flying Bird. With so prolific a resume and such a gulf between his great movies and his B-sides, the obvious question a new Soderbergh movie raises is, will this be something inspired or will it feel like he’s experimenting on me?
No Sudden Move doesn’t feel exactly like experimentation, so much as Soderbergh just sort of forgot to tell us what it was about. Scripted by Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted, Now You See Me, Men In Black) we follow two ex-cons, Russo and Goynes, played by Benicio Del Toro and Don Cheadle. Set in Detroit in 1954, they discover in smoky bars and backseats of big cars that they’ve been hired to do a job. Their benefactors are parties unknown and their go-between is played by Brendan Fraser, newly fattened and with an abundance of excess neck meat that serves him well playing a drunken underworld guy.
The idea is for them to go to a man’s house, played by David Harbour, and babysit his family while a third accomplice, played by Kieren Culkin, takes him to retrieve a package. We’ll call it “the MacGuffin.” During the course of this, Russo and Goynes, who are both estranged from their former mafia employers — Russo’s played by Ray Liotta, Goynes’ played by Bill Duke — get a lot of ideas about what this package could be, who it might be valuable to, and what it might mean for them.
Double-crosses, triple-crosses, and quadruple lindy reverse betrayals ensue, until we eventually find out, about three-fourths of the way into the movie, that the document they’ve been chasing is actually the design of a Very Important Real-Life Car Thingy (I’d tell you, but no spoilers). This information is delivered as if it’s a bombshell, as if Soderbergh secretly had been making The Insider this whole time and we only just found out at the movie’s 70-minute mark. I understand delayed gratification, but even Sting would’ve checked out by now. And even with the big delay, No Sudden Move is not The Insider. The MacGuffin might as well have been a briefcase filled with loose Skittles for all the difference it would’ve made to the plot.
It feels a bit like Soderbergh wanted to make a movie about redlining, urban renewal, and the car industry but that felt like too much work, so he made a “fun” heisty thing in which the characters occasionally pay lip service to those issues instead. It ends up being a vaguely genre-shaped thing about people we don’t really know or care about double crossing each other over a MacGuffin he never bothers explaining. All that fun Soderbergh seems to be having shooting these wonderful actors — who also include Amy Seimetz, Jon Hamm, and Julia Fox, who all look great in 50s clothes — in his signature fish eye lens (maybe give this thing a rest once in a while?) never really translates.
Then again, maybe there was some important expository dialogue that I missed during the first third of the film that was swallowed by the muddy sound mix. One of the drawbacks of the advance screener system is that we rarely get to watch things with subtitles, and a busy, muddy sound mix plus Benicio Del Toro muttering things off-camera often equals gibberish no amount of soundbar volume could unscramble. Did he say he flip me? Flip me for real? Actually knowing what characters are saying these days is an anachronistic thrill, like going on a horse and buggy ride or using a code word to gain entrance to a speakeasy.
As always, it’s impossible not to be impressed with Soderbergh’s ability to stage and shoot a scene, a talent he has historically put to use in some of my favorite stories (The Knick, for instance). But when he uses that talent to just sort of breeze through a rough draft story before flitting off to the next project, it’s a kind of disrespect to the subject.
No Sudden Move ends with some epilogue text about what happened to the Car Thingy MacGuffin, granting it this sort of bold typeface importance, consequential facts that we should all know before the credits roll. But if that was so important, why make a movie that only ever mentions it obliquely?