Steven Soderbergh is a fantastically eclectic filmmaker (you never know where he’s going to go next), but if you look back over his roughly 30 dramatic features it’s telling to consider how many of them are some variety of tricky old-school thriller or film noir powered by suspenseful screw-tightening. I’m talking about the “Ocean’s” trilogy, the ebullient Elmore Leonard adaptation “Out of Sight,” the redneck heist thriller “Logan Lucky,” the deconstructed gangster mystery “The Limey,” the brooding noir “The Underneath,” the small-town grunge noir “Bubble,” the sex-industry noir “The Girlfriend Experience,” and the true-life-bumbler noir “The Informant!” Soderbergh has a prankish side, but the truth is he would have been right at home in the ’40s or ’50 churning out moody black-and-white thrillers like Robert Siodmak or Joseph H. Lewis.
His latest, “No Sudden Move,” makes that connection all the more explicit. Opening on a gorgeous vintage version of the Warner Bros. logo, it’s a down-and-dirty, multi-tentacled crime thriller set in the racially polarized Detroit of 1954, and Soderbergh revels in the period trappings: the rounded cars and stylish baggy clothes, the elegant brick-based architecture, the surface ’50s “innocence” that now looks like it was designed to conceal corruption. He has also made a movie in which everyone is double-crossing everyone.
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In noir, the heroes tend to be sleazy compromised men, and on that score “No Sudden Move” doesn’t disappoint. The two main characters are a natty porkpie-hatted underworld hustler, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), who has an oblique messy history with some of the gangsters who’ve employed him; and the disreputable baby-faced smoothie Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), who’s a racist, a backstabber, and the kind of lowlife who tempts fate in regard to the ruthless crime boss Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) by sleeping with his wife (Julia Fox).
These two freelance thugs get hired, along with the flaky scoundrel Charley (Kieran Culkin), to bring off what looks like an easy assignment. They’re to enter the home of Matt Wertz (David Harbour), an accountant for GM, and spend a few hours holding his wife and children hostage while Matt gets taken down to his office, where he has to retrieve a mysterious document from his boss’s safe.
Wearing masks that look like Ace bandages with eye holes, the three break in, and the scenes in the Wertz home have a hair-trigger excitement that evokes the 1955 Humphrey Bogart noir “The Desperate Hours.” From the start, there are complicating circumstances, as when one of the crooks reveals that Matt is having an affair with his secretary. (That’s how he’s supposed to get into the safe.) And when the nervous, bumbling Matt, who’s reminiscent of William H. Macy in “Fargo,” gets to his office, he discovers that the document isn’t there. The plot thickens all the more when it turns out that our antiheroes have been set up; they aren’t scheduled to walk out of that house alive.
The old noirs were tightly structured, but everything in them played as a spontaneous eruption of passion and fate. “No Sudden Move” has a script, by Ed Solomon, that sprawls in several directions as it follows the improvised schemes of its characters. Goynes and Russo become partners as they realize that the document must be valuable enough to track down. They drive Wertz over to his boss’s posh Ohio home, where Wertz beats him to a pulp and retrieves the document, which turns out to be the engineering specs for a catalytic converter: the anti-pollution device that will revolutionize the auto business, though not for another decade. It’s worth a ton of money (for complex crooked reasons, since it will cut into the industry’s profits), and Goynes and Russo decide to betray the gangsters who hired them by smoking out the highest bidder. Goynes also has in his possession the incriminating codebook of one of the gangsters in the power chain, played with ominous cool by Bill Duke.
“No Sudden Move” is an ambitious light-spirited high-twist modernist noir in the tradition of “Devil in a Blue Dress” and Soderbergh’s own “Out of Sight.” Soderbergh, who shot and edited the film, works with a knack for the drama of amorality: the off-kilter camera angles, the lean mean mood of hardboiled misanthropy, the relish that great actors can take in playing crumbum hoods. The movie is clever and blithely vicious, it keeps you guessing, and it invites you to share Soderbergh’s joy in filmmaking. Cheadle exudes a terse command as Goynes, the street survivor who has spent his life getting the short end and wants to make up for it, Del Toro plays a cutthroat player with style, and there’s a juicy performance by Brendan Fraser, looking like a heavy sluggish parody of himself and inhabiting every bit of that corpulence as a seething gang henchman. Julia Fox, from “Uncut Gems,” knows how to make a femme as arresting as she is fatale, and Jon Hamm acts with impeccably dour ’50s crispness as the cop on everyone’s trail.
And yet: Just when the movie’s interlocking treacheries should be catching fire, you feel them wilt a bit. Soderbergh doesn’t make any obvious wrong moves, but the plot isn’t quite the tightly hot-wired tale of descent and payback we’ve been geared to expect. It’s more like watching an enormous, slightly abstract jigsaw puzzle of corruption come together. There is, it turns out, a Larger Theme at work, one that hinges on a Mr. Big played with graying omnipotence by Matt Damon. And while this kind of late-in-the-game revelation is fair game, the film is a little too pleased with its corporate conspiracy-theory dimension. You watch it and think: We’ve been here before, lots of times. “No Sudden Move,” for all its pleasures, doesn’t quite make the old seem new again.