I’m starting to find Steven Soderbergh to be a frustrating director. I don’t mean that he’s bad. If anything, he’s one of our most interesting living personalities currently working within the studio system. I just mean that I’m finding his output more tedious than usual.
For every Oceans Eleven, Contagion or Logan Lucky, he seems content to churn out 3-4 goofy, pretentious, egotistical and undercooked thrillers that don’t really accomplish much beyond trying to drill some sanctimonious story about corporate corruption into his audiences (see the self-serious political commentary about in Unsane, High Flying Bird and The Laundromat).
That’s very much the case with his newest film No Sudden Move. His newest flick dropped quietly on HBO Max last month to a fairly lukewarm reaction and limited fanfare.
On paper, it’s a lot of fun! Soderbergh is working hard to channel his inner noir fascination with a modern day version of the kind of topical, cynical, politically charged crime thrillers that Hollywood used to chug out on a regular basis like Ace in the Hole and Sweet Smell of Success. Stylistically, it seems to be borrowing heavily from Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil with use of its Latin soundtrack and themes of political corruption.
Unfortunately, that style is only skin deep. No Sudden Move is clearly a very cheap movie. It’s scale and scope mostly mark it as a made-for-tv movie in terms of how large the events feel and his cinematography comes across more rushed than usual. Soderbergh isn’t a huge fan of long takes and expensive cameras (two of his most recent films were shot on iPhones) but here the staging and cheap lighting really sink the production.
No Sudden Move looks like an over-lit Cannon film from the 1980s, but worse because it was clearly shot on a digital camera and lacks the film grain that makes those films tolerable amusing to look at.
The story is classic stuff from a noir thriller. Three common criminals are approached for a job where they’re they need to hold a family hostage long enough for one of the members to sneak into an office building and steal a document that will make their bosses a lot of money. As quickly becomes clear, the criminals are in over their head when it turns out things aren’t as simple as they were told and that they’re in possession of a document that multiple major automobile companies are fighting over that expose a conspiracy of silence regarding the pollution levels of cars created by these companies.
As with any Noir story, its framed with your normal series of reveals, shootouts, back alley negotiations and betrayals. For my money, the best sequence in the film was the initial hostage situation which initially just plays out like a tense game of waiting before it becomes clear that these individuals are all in over their heads.
If the film does anything particularly well, it’s character performances. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro both turn in solid lead work. Both of them are very charismatic actors so they don’t exactly meld into their parts so much as exude movie star energy and hold your eyes on the screen. Jon Hamm and Matt Damon show up to play as they always does. Ray Liotta and Bill Duke both turn in excellent late period performances that do a good job to work against their normal cinematic personalities.
The most surprising appearance tho is the great Brenden Frazier showing up as a fat threatening gangster. His performance is a bit off but it carries some of the air of Orson Welles’s performance in Touch of Evil.He’s definitely on a weird role of late as he just got cast in Scorsese and Aronofsky films this past month. The best performance though was David Harbour of all people who slips so comfortably into his “average middle American dad” persona so well that you can barely recognize him!
Sadly, most of this work is in service of a fairly empty script. The production design and the story don’t build to much so the film mostly skates by on its performances before ending on a sanctimonious title card about corruption in the automobile industry in the 1960s. It feels disingenuous.
I should say for clarity, I’m not against films being “political” or even advocating for progressive causes. My problem with No Sudden Move and his other films is that they’re smug about it. Soderbergh has been trying to create his own personal version of All the President’s Men for his entire career now and leave his mark on cinema as one of those filmmakers who can say something IMPORTANT. At this point, he’s tried to make that movie roughly a dozen times…
No Sudden Move just doesn’t earn that kind of bravado and political showmanship. There are a million “secret history of corporate corruption” movies out there already and this movie certainly doesn’t draw out the raw anger and emotions a story like that should. Instead, it just feels lazy. For all the talent on display here, this is Soderbergh and his cast skating by on easy-mode, turning in the bare minimum.