Small-time crooks get in way over their heads in “No Sudden Move,” a terrific, twisty crime thriller streaming on HBO Max. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) keeps a lot simmering under the surface, which is part of the hypnotic fun and left-field surprises.
Set in 1954 Detroit, where urban renewal is defined by one Black character as “Negro removal,” “No Sudden Move” doesn’t lecture about race, but you can feel the enmity, especially between Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and Black ex-con Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle). This amuses smart-mouthed Charley Barnes (Kieran Culkin), the third man on the job.
The trio has been brought together by middleman Mr. Jones (a skilled, unrecognizably bloated Brendan Fraser) to protect the identity of his mysterious employer. The big man is played by an unbilled A-list star who I won’t mention here because, well, it’s cool to be caught off guard.
The job is deceptively simple — steal a document from the office of Forbert (Hugh Maguire), an executive at General Motors. This is Motor City, after all, and the climactic curveball is based on a real-life Detroit scandal that reached the highest levels of industry and government.
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The knotty script by Ed Solomon brims over with cultural clashes and double-crosses that involve a battle between the Italian mob, repped by a seething Ray Liotta, and the African-American syndicate, given menacing power by Bill Duke. It also provides a field day for actors who interact with clockwork precision, escalating tension and off-the-wall laughs.
Superb ensemble casting is a Soderberg specialty, as he proved in his “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy. All the actors are in top form, starting with Cheadle, Del Toro and Culkin — the livewire from “Succession” — as the thieves who wear masks (nice touch since the film was shot during the pandemic) to invade the home of a middle-class family.
David Habour is a standout as Matt Wertz, the bland accountant and family man who’s told to steal the top-secret document from the safe of his GM boss or they’ll take out his wife, Mary (Amy Seimetz), and two kids (Noah Jupe, Lucy Holt). Wertz claims he doesn’t have the combination, but as Charley reminds him, “You do have the combo to his secretary.”
Many crime films of the 1950s reduced women to subservient roles. Not here. The boss’ secretary Paula (Frankie Shaw) has more going on than a side affair with Wertz. And Julia Fox, so good in “Uncut Gems,” plays Vanessa, the unfaithful wife of Liotta’s mobster, with a ruthless snap to put her husband to shame.
Best of all is Seimetz, a director herself, who brings a pre-feminist fire to the role of a Weitz’s wronged wife. Her sharp wit elevates every scene, whether she’s dealing with her husband’s infidelity or a gun being held to her head when the cops come knocking, ushering in Detective Joe Finney (a superbly sleazy Jon Hamm) who plays both sides of the law against the other.
The characters are all weighing their options against a fatalistic “forget, it Jake, it’s Chinatown” notion that the disenfranchised can’t fight City Hall. And yet Soderbergh’s film-noir throwback bristles with this-just-in urgency. Is that ambitious worldview too much for a crime caper? Maybe. But “No Sudden Move” will keep you riveted. You won’t know what hit you.
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