On an ordinary Monday morning in Detroit, three masked man show up at a handsome brick house on a tree-lined street. Once inside, two of them hold a mother and her children at gunpoint while their colleague accompanies the man of the house, a midlevel accountant at General Motors, on an urgent errand. It’s the mid-1950s, which means the cars are big and curvy, the men mostly wear hats and neckties, and the women are mostly wives, secretaries or mistresses.
Nobody involved — not the intruders or their victims — knows entirely what’s going on. The viewer of “No Sudden Move,” whose comparatively pleasant task is to connect a whole lot of intricately arranged dots, is in good company. The guys who stay behind in the house, Curt (Don Cheadle) and Ronald (Benicio Del Toro), have been hired by an impatient fellow named Mr. Jones (Brendan Fraser) for the supposedly simple job of armed babysitting. Before the morning is over, they learn that other, more elaborate agendas are involved: the petty grudges of organized crime bosses; the voracious ambitions of the automobile industry; the imperatives of American postwar power and prosperity.
And also, hovering over all of it, the preoccupations of the director, Steven Soderbergh. In the current phase of his dizzyingly protean career, Soderbergh is both an intrepid genre filmmaker and an impassioned practitioner of the cinema of ideas. “No Sudden Move,” from a script by Ed Solomon (who wrote all three “Bill & Ted” movies), is for the most part a tight and twisty against-the-clock crime caper with an obvious debt to Elmore Leonard (and a family resemblance to Soderbergh’s great Detroit-set thriller “Out of Sight”). It also has things to say — at times a little too speechily — about race, real estate, capitalism and power.
Those things are interesting, but maybe not as interesting as the people who say them. The story is about the sometimes lethal pursuit of cash and information, but the film’s single greatest asset is its cast. Curt and Ronald, small-timers who are skilled and smart but also out of their depth, are the focus of the action, which means that you spend a lot of time with Cheadle and Del Toro as they act out a high-stress — and yet low-key — buddy comedy.
Ronald, a bit of a drinker and a bit of a racist, moves through the world as if dancing to a sad melody that only he can here. Curt, just out of prison with sorrows of his own, has the quick wit and jumpy intensity of a survivor. Each has fallen afoul of a local crime boss, which is bad for them but lucky for us, since the big shots are played by Ray Liotta and Bill Duke.
There’s more, notably David Harbour as the pathetic G.M. accountant and Amy Seimetz as his seething wife. An entire melodrama of marital malaise and sexual secrecy is folded into their scenes, even as “No Sudden Move” suggests a Coen brothers movie with a sincere social conscience in place of the ambient cynicism. Most of the characters are semi-competent players in a game that is rigged against them, and you hope that at least some of them will play their bad hands well enough to break even.
The movie itself is nearly flawless in its professionalism, which is both a virtue and a limitation. The costumes (by Marci Rodgers) and production design (by Hannah Beachler) create a museum-quality panorama of the Motor City in its glory years, even as the script points out some of the cracks in the burnished surfaces. The precision and grace of the actors I’ve already named extend all the way through the ensemble — through Jon Hamm (as a skeptical lawman), Frankie Shaw (as a G.M. secretary with skin in the game), Julia Fox (as Ronald’s paramour) — to at least one potential surprise I don’t need to spoil.
In keeping with the automotive themes, everything runs like a well-oiled machine, which is also to say that a crucial, hard-to-define element — of soul, of spontaneity, of messiness or inspiration — is missing. The object that sets the plot in motion is a set of highly coveted blueprints, which at one point needs to be torn in half. The schematic for “No Sudden Move” remains perfectly intact, and the thing itself works pretty much according to the specifications. A consumer-rating agency would give it high marks for safety and efficiency, but it never leaves the showroom.
No Sudden Move
Rated R. Bloodshed and salty talk. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.
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