Steve Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” premiered to little fanfare on HBO Max on Friday. Like his last film, “Let Them All Talk,” it won’t have a theatrical release. It’s an unusual distribution deal for a director of Soderbergh’s generation, most of whom are busy trying to save the theatrical experience on which they grew up. But Soderbergh has always gone his own way. He launched the independent film boom of the ‘90s with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Then, after winning his Oscar for “Traffic” and crushing the box-office with his “Ocean’s” trilogy, he turned to making low-budget movies on IPhones like “Unsane” and “High Flying Bird.” I guess the guy just likes a challenge.
The challenge for “No Sudden Move” would have been to turn a profit in theaters. It’s the kind of thoughtful genre flick that critics typically champion but audiences don’t really turn out for anymore. Maybe they’ll click for it. It’s a nifty, ‘50s-set neo-noir with a stacked cast of actor’s actors: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Kieran Culkin, David Harbour, Amy Seimetz, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser (!), Julia Fox, and Jon Hamm, most of whom get only a few scenes but fit perfectly into this world of low-level criminals, flawed men, and wisecracking women. Noir is a frequency, and everyone here is tuned in.
The plot isn’t going to bowl you over: Cheadle and Del Toro play Goynes and Russo, low-level criminals in Detroit who get hired to hold a family hostage while a third associate (Culkin) accompanies the family patriarch (Harbour) to his office to steal a mysterious document from his boss’s safe. Things go wrong almost immediately, and Goynes and Russo are left trying to figure out if they were set up and by whom, while still trying to get their hands on the valuable item. Like most noirs, it’s densely plotted, but Soderbergh and his team hold the viewers in the palms of their dexterous hands. Information drips out of the characters like a leaky faucet, and at any given moment, you’ll feel neither completely caught up nor totally out of the loop.
If it had stayed committed to its twisty plot, “No Sudden Move” might have been a perfect movie, but it’s a little too concerned with unpacking its well-worn themes. This is a movie set in the past that unfortunately wants to explain Where We Are Now. Like “Chinatown,” perhaps the best of the neo-noir genre, it zooms in on the corruptive impact of capitalism run amok as our original sin, but “No Sudden Move” also packs in comments on gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, and the soft oppression of domesticity.
These themes resound throughout particular scenes, but taken as a whole, the film’s urgency to form a comprehensive critique distracts from the simple pleasure of the plot. In the end, we’re supposed to care if a certain character is killed, but after enduring a lecture on how rich people are destroying our future (delivered by one of Soderbergh’s movie star buddies in a distracting cameo), his fate seems like small potatoes.
At its best, so is “No Sudden Move,” which finds a great master working for pleasure in a once-important genre that no longer has commercial value and has been delivered onto a streaming service. Times have changed. Once again, Soderbergh proves there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t work too hard to explain why.