Set in 1954 Detroit against a backdrop of simmering racial tension, Steven Soderbergh’s smart, socially aware, slyly twisty and noirish crime drama “No Sudden Move” mostly lives up to its name, which is intended both literally and ironically. There’s a deliberateness - born as much of cinematic affectation as actual, character-driven caution - in the way that a character slowly sips his hot coffee or lays an envelope full of cash on the dashboard of a car, patting it with his hand for good measure.
It boasts the kind of dialogue, written by Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), in which people says things that you don’t hear every day, like “I’m going to punch you now” or (unless there’s a gun pointed at your head) “I’m going to slowly reach for the phone.” Other lines are more commonplace, like announcing”That’s the plan,” just before the plan goes kablooey.
And yet, with all this care and steadiness, “No Sudden Move” is a remarkably effervescent affair: not so much frothy as high-spirited, even when the story seems to be moving with the studied grace of a mime.
That story gets underway with consummate simplicity: A mob bagman (Brendan Fraser) hires three petty criminals (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin, the squirreliest of the bunch, which should tell you something about his character’s fate). They’re told to “babysit” a mother and her two kids (Amy Seimetz, Noah Jupe and Lucy Holt) while the father (David Harbour), an auto executive, is compelled - here’s where the persuasion of guns comes in - to retrieve a document from his boss’s office safe and bring it back home, for a reason, and a client, unknown.
Easy-peasy, right? That’s the plan.
Things do not go accordingly, and Cheadle’s Curt must improvise. He’s the smart one. There’s a running joke about the intelligence of Del Toro’s Ronald, and it isn’t flattering.
Soon, Curt and Ronald are on the lam with the document, pursued by a detective (Jon Hamm). Eventually, they manage to sniff out the man - correction: men - who want it, each of whom promises a successively richer payday than the one before him. It’s best to let the precise nature of the document - and the true backstory that Solomon mined for the film’s inspiration - reveal itself in the fullness of the film, which follows a deliciously winding path, to a denouement that is as satisfying as it is surprising.
Much of what’s surprising has to do with Cheadle’s character, who who has recently been released from prison, and carrying a second document, retrieved from a suitcase he left with a woman while he was behind bars. It’s both a liability and, more importantly, as it turns out, leverage.
This being the ’50s, segregation, prejudice and bigotry are still very much out in the open: Ronald, despite his slow-wittedness, is being paid more than Curt. And when things go south, and there’s a bounty placed on the two men’s heads, Ronald’s bounty is higher.
Solomon and Soderbergh’s story plies an unspoken social code that Curt navigates, brilliantly: For Curt, it’s the Black bellhop at a hotel rendezvous who, despite being a total stranger, is more trustworthy than any White character. And in the aftermath of a restaurant shootout, when Curt is pursuing a White guy through the kitchen, it’s the Black help who silently indicate he-went-thataway, a bitter, wordless joke premised on the fugitive and the pursuer’s race.
“No Sudden Move” could also refer to the snail’s pace of social change. But race is just a subtext - albeit an enriching one - in a piece of entertainment that feels like watching, say, “Ocean’s 11,” but with a social conscience.
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Three and one-half stars out of four. Rated R. available on HBO Max. Contains coarse language throughout, some violence and sexual references. 115 minutes.