In an opening scene that introduces one of the main themes of Steven Soderbergh’s aspiring noir thriller, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), a thoughtful, wary, and armed ex-con, struggles to determine if he can trust a white guy named Jones (Brendan Fraser), who has offered him a lot of money ($3,000 in 1954, when the film is set) for 3 hours of “baby-sitting.” More decisions about trust follow. Can Curt trust and work with enigmatic Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and hot-headed Charley (Kieran Culkin, who here inhabits much the same role as the irresponsible, smartest-guy-in-the-room jerk he portrays in the TV drama, “Succession”)?
As savvy and calculating as Curt is, there’s no predicting the unpredictable. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) found out the hard way in the noir classic “Double Indemnity” (1944), when his plan to commit a murder and fake a suicide runs up against a stranger occupying the train’s normally empty rear platform. In “He Walked by Night” (1949), the protagonist is shot by police when a car randomly parked on a manhole cover prevents his escape.
There’s more than contingency to writer Ed Solomon’s script (“Men in Black”  and the Bill and Ted series). Curt, Russo, Charley, and the bean-counting accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour) are all guilty of over-reaching, of wanting more from life—more from a given situation than it ought reasonably be expected to produce, of continually imagining how their world might be rearranged to yield more (usually more money or more sex or more of both). The implication is that overreaching is a universal human condition. Big-shot investor Mike Lowen (an uncredited Matt Damon) makes this all too clear in his own moment of over-reach—this one into the pitfall of the didactic—lecturing Curt and Ronald across an enormous corporate boardroom table on their failure to recognize that they have no control, that real power resides with those above them (whether mafia bosses or business moguls)—and always will.
Of the dozens of characters in the film, there aren’t many one can care about. Curt and Ronald are major presences (and the beneficiaries of understated performances by acting pros), to the point where it could be tempting to label “No Sudden Move” a “buddy film”—except that no real bond of intimacy is formed, and Ronald is only too ready to sacrifice Curt for his own greed. Matt Wertz, like Walter Neff, is not so much evil as naïve and in over his head, but he’s too comically pathetic to warrant our embrace. Curt, for all his faults and failures of judgment, appears to have some moral core, one that’s recognized (for our benefit) by an old girlfriend and, thankfully, an instinct for survival. With the exception of the Damon character, who seems cut and pasted into the script, we’re offered life’s lessons from people on the bottom rung of the organized crime ladder, all of whom are presented as unimportant and dispensable. Curt is a protagonist with whom we can empathize, but only barely.
The prolific and award-winning Soderbergh seems most interested in being slavishly faithful to the “Madmen”-like settings and atmosphere of dimly-lit Detroit in the mid-1950s (to the point of bringing back Jon Hamm in a detective role, with a slight-enough presence that we don’t care about him—or the perspective of law enforcement—either).
Among other shortcomings is the failure to create full-fledged female characters.
Among other shortcomings is the failure to create full-fledged female characters. The women in the film are stereotypes, whether of the era or the noir genre. Matt’s wife, Mary (Amy Seimetz) is a dysfunctional housewife, overwhelmed by life’s daily requirements, addicted to booze and smoking, though she somehow summons the self-composure to offer her husband a puff on her cigarette in a touching late scene that’s as close to “making the couple” as the screenplay can manage. The “girl” in the office, Paula, and crook Frank Capellli’s wife Vanessa (Frankie Shaw, Julia Fox and Ray Liotta as Frank)—seem to want nothing more than to have money and an affair with someone—Wertz or just some guy named Phil, though they are also classic noir femme fatale types, pushing the men in their lives to over-reach and, in Vanessa’s case, willing to kill to have her way.
The plethora of characters is matched by an overly complex, intentionally obtuse plot that circulates around two much-valued documents: a ten-year-old notebook of mafia contacts; and specifications for a recently invented device—a catalytic converter—which the auto companies have conspired to keep secret so they don’t have to improve their gas guzzlers. The politics and economics of the catalytic converter are not central to the film, but they are part of a rudimentary critique of capitalism that includes off-handed and brief racial takes on urban renewal, bank red-lining, and anti-Semitism. More important than these minor references to capitalist abuses is the film’s equivalence of big business and the mafia—as if they were simply different versions of the same evil.
As one might expect from Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies and Videotape”  and “Logan Lucky” ), the film has its quirky elements and its tense moments. But they’re not enough to save “No Sudden Move” from being just another noir movie (hardly a “thriller”), this one gussied up with elaborate period furnishings and fashions and a famous actor speechifying in a cameo role. You might be better off watching Walter Neff squirm.
Lead image: Three petty crooks meet in an Italian restaurant. Left to right – Ray Liotta as Frank, Benicio Del Toro as Ronald, and Don Cheadle as Curt.”
Stars: 2.5 (out of 4)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Kieran Culkin, David Harbour, Amy Seimetz, Frankie Shaw, Matt Damon, Ray Liotta
Other Awards: None to date
Runtime: 115 minutes
Country: United States
Availability: released in theaters July 1 and streaming on HBO Max; for future availability, see JustWatch here.