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‘No Sudden Move,’ on HBO Max: noir unhinged and unpacked

Don Cheadle (left) and Benicio Del Toro in "No Sudden Move."Claudette Barius/Associated Press

When he’s truly cooking with gas, Steven Soderbergh may be the best, most underrated director in the business. Lately he has turned his attentions to the streaming market, with results inspired (“Let Them All Talk”) and less so (“The Laundromat”), but “No Sudden Move” on HBO Max feels like a career highlight, a twisty crime drama to rank close to “Out of Sight” (1998), which was one of the finest things the man’s done.

Both films are hugely entertaining exercises in greed, gunplay, hubris, and comeuppance, with large casts of colorful characters shooting each other and themselves in the feet. But where “Out of Sight” fizzed with humor and sex appeal, “No Sudden Move” is all business, and often fascinatingly so. The first movie was based on an Elmore Leonard novel; the new one is an original by Ed Solomon (“Men in Black,” the “Bill and Ted” movies) that lives fully in the world of Leonard, Donald Westlake, and George V. Higgins. Next to Quentin Tarantino in “Jackie Brown,” no one translates that world to film as well as Soderbergh.

Jon Hamm in "No Sudden Move." Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

The setting is Detroit 1954, and some shadowy someone hires two rough customers, Curt Goines (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro), for a mysterious task. A “babysitting job.” Cheadle and del Toro have faces that have traveled miles of hard road, and the fact that the go-between doing the hiring is played by Brendan Fraser, a one-time screen idol who here seems to be channeling Orson Welles’s bloated lawman in “Touch of Evil,” is icing on the cake.


The “babysitting job” is the home invasion of one Matt Wertz (David Harbour, “Stranger Things”), a pencil-pusher at General Motors, in order to force Wertz to get a document out of the company safe. Curt and Ronald are on hand to watch over the man’s wife (Amy Seimetz) and children (Lucy Holt and Noah Jupe, the latter oddly wasted in a role that wants to go somewhere and doesn’t) while the hair-trigger Charley (Kieran Culkin of “Succession”) accompanies Wertz to the office. The document gone missing from the safe is just the first of the plan’s many hiccups, which keep expanding until they’ve become a full-blown case of peptic ulcers.


Benicio Del Toro (left) and Don Cheadle in a scene from "No Sudden Move." Claudette Barius/Associated Press

The taut suspense of those early scenes ultimately gives way to the dark comedy of venal people scrambling to get a piece of something they’re not even sure of. “No Sudden Move” is a very male movie — or, rather, it’s a movie about male bravado and impotence — and the actors playing the men are choice. They include Ray Liotta as Frank, a hot-headed mid-level mobster with a tootsie wife (Julia Fox, “Uncut Gems”) who’s the smartest person in the film; Jon Hamm as a police detective notably short on ethics; and lonesome Matt Damon, a long-time Soderbergh ace in the hole, as someone quite high up in the automotive industry. Who knows what’s in that document everyone wants, but as far as the not-terribly-bright Ronald can tell, it’s the plans for some kind of “Cadillac convertible.”

Close, but no cigar, and “No Sudden Move” backs into a corner of Detroit Big Three history that almost evokes “Chinatown” in its corruption and chicanery. The plot is complex to the point of occasional inscrutability — watching a Soderbergh movie can be like doing a crossword puzzle — but plot is beside the point. What jazzes this filmmaker and the actors who flock to him is the language the characters speak, what they say and don’t say as they triple-cross each other into oblivion.


In noir — and “No Sudden Move” is noir unhinged and unpacked — there has to be one honest man piercing the murk, and here it’s Cheadle’s Goines, the name a tip of the hat to the late crime writer Donald Goines and the character an aging career criminal worn down by having to out-think everyone else’s greed and stupidity. Cheadle played the scariest figure in “Out of Sight,” but here he’s the film’s conscience, as dangerous as anyone onscreen yet only wanting “just what’s mine” and nothing else. (It’s the desire for more that gets you killed.) The actor has long established that he can do just about anything, and the hard-won cool of Goines, the way the character almost invisibly takes command of any given situation, feels like an expansion of Cheadle’s gift. It’s a wonderful performance, and “No Sudden Move” is a terrific movie — an unflashy near-masterpiece of professionalism on both sides of the camera.



Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Ed Solomon. Starring Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Julia Fox, Matt Damon, Kieran Culkin, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser. Available on HBO Max. 115 minutes. R (language throughout, some violence and sexual references)