On the principle that second-rate Soderbergh is better than no Soderbergh at all, a warm hello to No Sudden Move, a pastiche 1950s crime drama with a Maguffin that insists it’s more than a Maguffin.
Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin and Benicio Del Toro play three prickly guys hired to “babysit” a family (ie hold them hostage) while one of them takes Dad Matt (David Harbour) off to pick up something from a safe. That “something” becomes increasingly important as the story progresses, eventually bathing everything in a Chinatown-style glow as it becomes apparent that behind these no-marks is a vast scheme based on corporate corruption of a sort that makes day-to-day Mob activity look silly.
Talking of mobsters, early on we meet Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), the face who’s hired Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin), but behind him, so the whisper goes, might be Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) or possibly Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke), a pair of local mobsters, though there’s also talk of teams moving in from out of town, from Detroit, Chicago or Illinois, or possibly all three. This thing is big, which should make small-fry Curt and crew nervous but doesn’t, because all three of them are hoping for a quick in and out and also because they’re all a bit dim.
Anyhow, what looks like it’s going to be a straight-up family-hostage drama, reinforced by the fact that it’s excellent Amy Seimetz playing the concerned matriarch, becomes something far less straightforward once – big breath – a) it’s established husband/dad Matt has been having an affair with his secretary, b) they were planning on running off to California together, c) the “something” at the husband’s workplace isn’t in the safe, d) one of the gang unexpectedly dies, e) the police arrive, f) the surviving two set about playing one big gangster off against another, hoping to somehow wriggle through the gaps and come out of this morass as wealthier men.
There are more plot turns, a lot more, involving Matt’s shifty boss Mel Forbert (Hugh Maguire), four-square cop Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) and corporate big wheel Mike Lowen (Matt Damon). And as the actual nature of what was meant to have been stolen becomes clear, it’s as if, somewhere in the screenwriter afterlife, Raymond Chandler (the increasingly unfathomable plot) and Robert Towne (the LA-corruption angle) are duking it out for possession of the film’s soul.
Here the screenwriter is Ed Solomon, best known for light-hearted larks really, having written Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels and the Bill and Ted movies, but he’s got his pastiche hat firmly screwed on in No Sudden Move, having clearly binge-watched a lot of movies featuring men in hats talking out of the side of their mouths. Some snappy one-liners occasionally move things towards a comedy precipice, especially as it becomes more obvious that our smalltime criminal heroes are incompetent and/or drunk most of the time.
The dead weight of pastiche extends to Steven Soderbergh, who alternates his usual sparkling shooting style with scenes done very dark, often in impressively big interiors full of wood and with ornate ceilings, plus the odd Edward Hopper-inspired exterior shot to emphasise America at its most American, while David Arnold’s score hums along with drums, bongos and double bass picking out a downbeat jazzy vibe.
The best pastiches (like, say, Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS movies starring Jean Dujardin) aren’t just technically accomplished, they re-orient our attitudes to the original material – they have a political agenda.
There’s no such thing going on here. Instead, Soderbergh gives us an accomplished and very cool exercise in style. If you’re in the mood to roll around in one of those, you’ll probably enjoy No Sudden Move more than I did. On top of that, for all the joys of seeing this first-rate cast and laying a small bet on how underused Ray Liotta is going to be (again), there’s a fatal indecision about how comedic things are actually meant to be. It’s like the Three Stooges without jokes.
As for the postscript insisting that the movie has been about a real-life conspiracy driven by a cartel of US car manufacturers, it’s as good as an admission by Soderbergh and Solomon that they’ve failed. Sumptuously.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021