Review: Detroit steals show in Soderbergh's 'No Sudden Move'
Unfolding in 1950s Detroit, Steven Soderbergh's stirring heist drama finds the city in a state of change.
There is no shortage of stars in "No Sudden Move" — the cast includes Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Jon Hamm, Julia Fox, Ray Liotta, David Harbour, Noah Jupe and a certain A-lister whose presence comes as a surprise in the movie — but it's Detroit that steals the show in Steven Soderbergh's twisty, quietly soulful 1950s-set heist noir.
The city is both the backdrop against which the action unfolds and the underbelly of the story and its characters' motivations. This web of hoodlums, gangsters, middle-men, housewives and white collar auto execs are scraping and clawing to get ahead but all have to answer to a chain of command, no line jumping allowed.
The city is shifting beneath them, and the powers that be are conspiring to wipe out Black neighborhoods, all in the name of "urban renewal." The corruption at the very top trickles all the way down to the bottom and affects every character in this wide-reaching but surprisingly tight-knit world.
Meanwhile, on a purely aesthetic level, damn, does Detroit look good on camera.
Soderbergh, who also shot parts of 1998's "Out of Sight" in the city, lovingly films the city's streets, old homes, alleyways, boardrooms, lobbies and stairwells with a period richness that brings out its historic beauty. It's been years since a production this size shot in the city, not since the state's film incentives were yanked in 2015. But Soderbergh — who shot using era-appropriate wide-angle lenses that give it an almost-warped, fisheye-style look — gets more out of the city than most who were shooting while the incentives were booming.
Cheadle does stirring, understated work as Curt Goynes, an ex-con who is hired by Jones (Brendan Fraser) to do a job that requires him to "babysit" a family while a top-secret document is retrieved. He doesn't know what the document is or who the other players are, but a job is a job, and there's good money in it: $5,000 for three hours of work, and no one gets hurt.
He's joined by Ronald Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin), who break into a home and keep tabs on the Wertz family, Matt (Harbour) and Mary (Amy Seimetz) and their two children. Charley goes with Matt to retrieve said document from his boss, setting off a chain of double- and triple-crosses that goes all the way up to top of the auto industry with links to the U.S. government.
"No Sudden Move" moves and shakes like a heist movie, and absolutely works on that level. But screenwriter Ed Solomon ("Men in Black," the "Bill & Ted" movies) builds so much Detroit history into the framework of his story that there is a much deeper read just beneath the surface, about the fight for the city's soul and the characters' desperation to get a piece, any piece, of the pie. The film is fiction, but is built around a factual document and is characterized with elements of the city's actual gangs and organized crime units, so it successfully operates on several levels at once.
Soderbergh, who has made 30 films in the last 33 years (this is his second film in seven months, following December's "Let Them All Talk") remains one of our most interesting and unpredictable filmmakers, oscillating between blockbusters and indies, comedies and dramas, projects big and small. Filming at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan presented him with a new sort of artistic challenge, and the fact that there's no sign of compromise anywhere on screen is the highest compliment he can be paid.
"No Sudden Move" offers a look at a city in a period of transition and what that transition does to everyone around it. The big beats crackle, the smaller ones hang around like an aftershock. Don't be surprised if it ends up knocking you out.
'No Sudden Move'
Rated R: for language throughout, some violence and sexual references
Running time: 90 minutes
On HBO Max