One of the slyer jokes in "No Sudden Move," Steven Soderbergh's smart, insouciantly twisty thriller set in 1954 Detroit, is how little some of its characters know about cars. The plot hinges on a document coveted by some of the city's biggest auto manufacturers, but the various lowlifes hired to steal it are, with one notable exception, happily ignorant of its contents. At one point a gangster mistakes a Cadillac convertible for a catalytic converter, a mistake he'll pay for symbolically when two men shove him into the trunk of a vintage Hudson. (This moment could be a nod to "Goodfellas" — the gangster in question is played by Ray Liotta — or to Soderbergh's 1998 Detroit-set classic, "Out of Sight.")
But while that document might be indecipherable to most, it wouldn't be accurate to call it a MacGuffin. Unlike most throwaway plot devices, this one is rooted in actual history and its closely guarded secrets will have significant, potentially devastating implications — industrial, sociopolitical, environmental. Those implications are of particular interest to Soderbergh, whose playful sensibility often conceals a deeper rigor about real-world specifics. As in some of his recent big-business milieus — the sports agent industry in "High Flying Bird," the global shell-company hustle in "The Laundromat" — his vision of '50s Detroit is both a simulacrum and a labyrinth, the staging area for a precision-tooled parable of late-capitalist vice and venality.
Cars drive the narrative in more than one sense. The executive suites of General Motors, Ford and Studebaker-Packard figure prominently in Ed Solomon's keenly intelligent screenplay, while some of the most important developments — assignations and getaways, schemings and whackings — take place behind the wheel. The vehicles, popping out amid Hannah Beachler's richly burnished '50s production design, are lavished with loving visual attention, their bulbous bodies and gleaming pastel finishes sometimes taking on funhouse-mirror distortions as they cruise through Soderbergh's wide-angle images. (The director shot and edited the picture under his usual pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively.)
Fortunately, the people driving those cars are just as interesting, which may be what distinguishes "No Sudden Move" from "F9: The Fast Saga" as the finest automotive thriller of the season. (Unlike "F9," however, Soderbergh's movie is being released on HBO Max and won't be showing in theaters.) Among the most intriguing are a pair of world-weary hoodlums, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), plucked from the city's warring Black and Italian criminal factions and hired for a lucrative if exceedingly odd job. Their task is to "babysit" the family of a corporate drone named Matt Wertz (David Harbour, making flop sweat interesting) while he fetches the aforementioned papers from a safe at the office.
Like so many arrangements involving masked men, drawn guns and a terrified wife (Amy Seimetz) and kids (Noah Jupe and Lucy Holt), the plan goes violently awry in no time. A darker conspiracy looms, forcing Goynes and Russo into an uneasy partnership as they try to avoid becoming bounty fodder and score a potentially huge payday. Cheadle and Del Toro, both Soderbergh veterans, give emotional form to two distinct states of desperation; they maintain a nicely combative rapport that draws you in but also keeps you on your toes.
From there, the tricky side hustles and devious reversals multiply almost by the minute as the two men try to maintain the advantage over whoever may be hunting them (and also, of course, over each other). Their allies and rivals include a hulking Brendan Fraser, a trigger-happy Kieran Culkin, a fabulously dressed Bill Duke and a surly Liotta. Jon Hamm, no stranger to a fedora, turns up as an unflappable police detective (and makes a forgivably anachronistic reference to "The $64,000 Question," which wouldn't hit the airwaves until 1955).
There are also dark-suited movers and shakers played by Hugh Maguire, Kevin Scollin and one actor whose identity, like most of the story's late revelations, shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention. That's a lot of men behaving badly, though happily Soderbergh, fresh off last year's splendid Meryl Streep-Dianne-Wiest-Candice Bergen boat trip in "Let Them All Talk," remains one of the most casually and consistently gender-egalitarian American directors of his generation. The '50s setting may account for why most of the women are housewives, mistresses or secretaries (some are two out of three), but nearly all of them make the most of — and sometimes even subvert — the conventionally supportive, straitjacketed roles they've been assigned.
No one does this more fully or efficiently than Seimetz (a key force on the Soderbergh-produced series "The Girlfriend Experience") as Mary Wertz, who shames her caddish husband several times by handling a terrifying situation with impossible wit and courage. Like Lauren LaStrada, who lights up one bittersweet scene as a sympathetic figure from Goynes' past, Seimetz needs only moments to sketch a character you'd gladly follow into a movie of her own. Close behind them are Julia Fox (so good in "Uncut Gems") and Frankie Shaw as two women who are involved with men patently unworthy of them — and who prove far more aware of it than those men may realize. If corporate backstabbing and mob double-crossing form the narrative engine of "No Sudden Move," romantic betrayal provides the lubricant; the James M. Cain-style plot turns on not one but two instances of marital infidelity.
The result is a ride that feels smooth and bumpy in all the right places. You are pulled along by the seductive glide of Soderbergh's filmmaking, by the jazzy riffs of David Holmes' score and the suavity of the camerawork, only to be jolted into high alertness by the nasty, bloody surprises in Solomon's script. While Soderbergh's mastery of the crime caper can hardly be doubted at this point, the noirish cynicism of "No Sudden Move" suggests a grim tonal and moral reversal of his earlier ensemble thrillers, chiefly the "Ocean's" movies and the marvelous, underappreciated "Logan Lucky." Rather than leaving behind a warm glow of camaraderie, the movie's trapdoor-springing final scenes leave us pondering the vagaries of ill fortune, the futility of greed and a few bluntly articulated lessons about how capitalism builds and destroys.
What it's destroying in this particular slice of American history is a sizable chunk of Detroit's Black population, continually subjected to racist housing policies and zoning laws. Goynes wants to use the spoils of this particular caper to redress some of those injustices, but there are limits to what he can accomplish, and also to what the filmmakers can illuminate in the course of a two-hour commercial entertainment. "No Sudden Move" does what it can to usher those hard truths into the light, particularly in one pointed scene set in a Black suburb that will soon be leveled to make room for a freeway. The moment sticks out like a sore thumb, and I mean that as a compliment. Sometimes it's not just about the destination or the journey, but the detours.
‘NO SUDDEN MOVE’
Rated: R (for language throughout, some violence and sexual references)
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Now streaming on HBO Max
This article was originally published on the Los Angeles Times.