No Sudden Move is, on the one hand, a very good crime drama, a darkly comic neo-noir capturing the corruption at the heart of modern suburban (and urban) life that uses its eclectic cast to electrifying effect. On the other hand, No Sudden Move aspires to be something more, a searing look at the systems of power that demonstrates just how rigged the game that we’re all playing is. These two ideas aren’t in tension—many, if not most, crime dramas highlight the ways in which the big guy is screwing the little guy—but they are fused in a slightly clumsy manner that marginally detracts from the film’s overall impact.
Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) are hired along with Charley (Kieran Culkin) to watch the family of Matt Wertz (David Harbour) while he retrieves a document from a safe for the trio of hoods. They’ve been hired by Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), though who Doug is working for—and who Doug’s boss is working for—is unclear. Indeed, it’s not even clear what any of these guys are actually trying to steal.
What follows is an impressively curvy series of both occupational and sexual double crosses that culminates in an enormous amount of money changing hands, a bunch of people dying, and a handful of folks getting what they want. More fun than the twists and turns of the plot is simply watching these actors work. Cheadle plays Curt with a sort of low growl, while Del Toro slides comfortably back into the weary ennui of The Way of the Gun’s Longbaugh. Fraser, doughy and rocking a fedora, occasionally feels as if he’s channeling the look, if not quite the vocal cadence, of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. The great Bill Duke brings a quiet forcefulness as a mob boss, while Ray Liotta gives us a look at what Henry Hill might have looked like if he’d made it to middle management. And I haven’t even mentioned Amy Seimetz or Julia Fox or Frankie Shaw, the put-upon women forced to take matters into their own hands when the men in their respective lives turn out to be no good.
Steven Soderbergh directs a script by Ed Solomon, and it is times like these when I wish I had a better grasp on the technical side of filmmaking so I could better describe exactly what Soderbergh is getting at in his decision to employ an anamorphic lens in close up and medium shots that puts a literal bend in much of the action. The action on the edges is distorted—actors look skinnier and taller—but the focus in the middle of the screen often distracts from where the real action is, on the periphery. The corners of the screen almost fade out, as if we’re being asked to accentuate or highlight what’s happening in the middle.
But it’s on the periphery, just out of sight, where the real action is. And that’s the larger point of this film, which closes with a title card about, of all things, catalytic converters and efforts by the car companies to stifle their emergence. That No Sudden Move has something to say beyond the twists and turns of its noirish crime drama sensibility is not surprising; Steven Soderbergh’s films generally have something to say beyond the simple plot machinations. High Flying Bird is nominally about a basketball agent trying to survive a strike but it’s actually about the exploitation of talent at the hands of third-party intermediaries sucking the talent dry. The Informant!, in addition to being about a guy caught pilfering millions, is, cleverly, a subversion of the genre Soderbergh himself mastered in Erin Brockovich, that of the hardworking, trustworthy figure trying to bring down a horribly evil company harming customers. Sometimes plot machinations are dispensed with entirely, as in his exposé of the global financial class The Laundromat. That he and Solomon have something to say beyond the ins and outs of a criminal plot is not surprising.
The only real misstep in the film comes fairly late in the game, when a famous actor shows up to deliver a monologue that explains the world to our clever, but out-of-their-element, protagonists. The speech is, at best, clunky; at worst, it’s a little insulting, especially in its metatextual acknowledgment that we are watching a character explaining everything. The subtle looks and nods that the African-American actors give each other to signal their quiet knowledge of a world they have to operate around as much as through—to say nothing of the decidedly less subtle talk of redlining and urban renewal elsewhere in the film, as well as the delivery an officer of the law makes as the picture wraps—should be enough to help us understand the real meaning of No Sudden Move and the true villains it hopes to expose.
That said, it’s hard to blame filmmakers for being afraid that folks are going to miss the point. And No Sudden Move is sly enough elsewhere to make up for it.