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HBO Max’s ‘No Sudden Move’ has the art of the steal and lure of a Soderbergh heist movie

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Don Cheadle, left, and Benicio Del Toro star in "No Sudden Move." The movie is streaming on HBOMax.

Steven Soderbergh has been here before. His latest project, the sleek, zigzaggy crime story “No Sudden Move” currently streaming on HBO Max, was shot and takes place in Detroit, where much of Soderbergh’s terrific 1998 “Out of Sight” unfolds.

“Here” also means the heist genre. Soderbergh has prowled its streets many times. Among Soderbergh’s most commercial projects are the 2001 “Ocean’s 11” remake plus two sequels. Set in 1954, starring Don Cheadle in his sixth Soderbergh movie along with other Soderbergh alums including co-star Benicio del Toro, screenwriter Ed Solomon’s “No Sudden Move” script has elements of the “Ocean’s” banter and low-keyed wit. But the underworld setting and hints of sociological awareness point to a variation on film noir and its moral labyrinths.

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Our screen lives have become all too consuming these past 16 months, so maybe neo-noir terminology is inevitable in describing a pandemic lurching from “No Way Out” (this’ll never end; we’ll never get enough people vaccinated; everything’s hopeless) to where we are now, which is either “One False Move” (for those bracing for variant disaster) or “A Better Tomorrow” (for the optimists, many with tickets to Lollapalooza). We can agree only on this: To everything that has plagued us since early last year, we’re just trying to say farewell, my lovely.

“We did this thing during COVID,” says Rebecca Lyon, assistant technical director at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, “where people would send in requests for suggestions on what to watch. This was through the Music Box Instagram account. They’d send me a question, and especially over the winter, people really appreciated the advice.” Romantic comedies of the ’90s; silent films; whatever. Lyon leaned on her colleagues for help depending on the question.

People, she says, “just liked having somebody curate their movie experience.”

Unintentionally, Lyon adds, the outreach effort ended up collecting informal data on audience tastes. The  No. 1 request? “Heist films,” she says, followed closely by whodunits.

“I get it,” Lyon says. “They engage your brain in a way that’s very distracting, in a good way. Also, caper movies, which tend to be less violent, more puzzle-solving — plus a whole bunch of great character actors.”

Bingo! This explains why the Music Box’s recent heist mini-festival did well, with Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” Michael Mann’s “Heat,” Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11” remake and Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” a Chicago spin on a British crime series.

This also explains why “No Sudden Move” hits the spot, in its wry evocations of mid-20th century Detroit, in a clever story of the Black and Italian American syndicates.

Solomon’s script puts enough narrative machinery in motion for a four- or six-part limited series, and in its two-hour structure it’s a challenge to keep up. Cheadle’s character, Curt Goynes, is recently sprung from prison. He’s hired by the Italian mob to “babysit” the family of an automotive company accountant (David Harbour). The accountant has been given an offer he can’t refuse: Influential men in low places want what he can give them, which is a set of highly confidential plans (contents revealed later in the film) being sold at a premium to a rival auto company.

It’s plot-forward, this movie, and it’s good enough to make you wish it were just that much better. Solomon’s script could use some ventilation, and not in the machine-gun way. At its best, “No Sudden Move” lets Cheadle set the tone and the rhythm; when he’s on screen, the movie’s about a human being we want to know more about. The actor pushes his voice down into Miles Davis territory (easy access for Cheadle; he played Davis once) and finds levity, gravity and casual poetry in that range.

Some of the casting is oddball, as with Brendan Fraser’s impish take on a mob knucklehead. Some is inspired: Bill Duke’s crime boss may be a flamboyant conceit, but Duke’s terrific, as is Ray Liotta as the venal adversary on the other side of town. Screenwriter Solomon does more name-checking than dramatizing when it comes to what’s going on in Detroit (and elsewhere) in 1954, from redlining of Black neighborhoods to the corporate conspiracy that gives “No Sudden Move” its eventual story development. But Soderbergh, backed by another fruitful and sly collaboration with composer David Holmes, is really on his game here, editing bursts of violence for maximum efficiency without maximum sadism.

Like many of Soderbergh’s achievements, this one is dominated by a stylistic decision that’s a bit of a mixed bag. He shoots with ultra-wide lenses, perhaps too slavishly; the fish-eye effect and curled-up edges of the frame can seem a little self-conscious, at least when used this aggressively. On the other hand, the location work and Soderbergh’s compositions are often wonderful. The movie is devoted to the presence of its beautiful old cars, and when the camera follows a vehicle on a pivot, the effect is noir in a nutshell: For these weasels — most of them, anyway — what goes around, comes around.

The double crosses are more like sextuples. But there’s enough going on in “No Sudden Move” to cure any momentary bouts of “wait … what?” Anyway, that’s COVID for you: These days we’re all a little wait-what. Soderbergh filmed this last fall, helping to establish COVID-19 filming protocols as he went on behalf of his industry. The movie is full of terse encounters between actors in tight spaces, small kitchens, sedan back seats. The confinement feels both of its filming moment and true to the period. Its filmmaking finesse, meantime, feels liberating.