The heist movie is a subgenre that’s basically out of gas at this point, at least from a plot perspective. Pretty much every film follows a fairly standard pattern of a big idea, complications that could be easily foreseen with a bit of logical thinking, at least two betrayals, and an ultimate victor when it comes to the actual score. It’s been done to death, reanimated, done to death again (including with zombies), beaten like the proverbial horse, revived once more for good measure, and driven back into the ground.
There really is no story point that can keep the idea fresh anymore, so those that still take it upon themselves to venture into this territory are left with the challenge of sustaining the grand illusion by imbuing the film with stylistic touches, memorable characters, and a strong cast. Thankfully, Steven Soderbergh is more than up to the task with No Sudden Move. While the formula is nothing new, he at least aims for an entertaining outing with this latest entry, giving us some solid performances and unique touches so that we can at least enjoy the inevitable.
Set in 1950s Detroit, the crux of the film is on two low-level gangsters, Curt Goynes (played spectacularly by Don Cheadle, almost enough to forgive his involvement in the Space Jam sequel) and Ronald Russo, given a passable Midwestern accent by Benicio del Toro. Both of them are on the outs with their respective organized crime kingpins – Curt to Bill Duke’s Aldrick Watkins, to whom he owes a debt, and Ronald to Frank Capelli, played by Ray Liotta, who knows that Ronald is having an affair with his wife Vanessa (Julia Fox) – and reluctantly take an offer for a “babysitting” job by enforcer Doug Jones (an almost unrecognizable Brendan Fraser) in hopes of using their payday to extricate themselves from their individual difficulties.
Along with a hotheaded crook named Charley (Kieran Culkin being delightfully off-kilter), the three are tasked with taking a suburban family hostage and forcing the father (David Harbour) to steal an envelope of corporate secrets from his boss’ office. Harbour’s Matt Wertz (which instantly threw me because I went to high school with someone by that name) has his own problems, as he’s been having a tryst with his boss’ secretary, Paula (Frankie Shaw), and was planning to use the information in that envelope to broker his own exit to California, leaving his family behind, a truth not lost on wife Mary (Amy Seimetz) or son Matthew Jr. (Noah Jupe).
The operation goes pear-shaped, because you literally can’t have a heist movie if everything goes according to the first plan, and within minutes the film escalates into a game of risks, backstabs, gang warfare, mental gymnastics, and corporate collusion. For all the different alleys the plot eventually goes down, I have to give credit to Soderbergh at the very least for maintaining a proper pace. The story never goes so fast that you can’t keep up, yet never drags into unnecessary diversions. The two-hour affair feels brisk, but comfortable throughout.
The cast as well is superb, particularly Cheadle and Culkin, and Liotta’s an absolute hoot for his limited role. It honestly says a lot about how strong the ensemble is that bona fide A-listers like Jon Hamm and Matt Damon are left with fairly small roles, and yet they feel natural within them, even if one of them almost comes off like an extended cameo. It also helps that screenwriter Ed Solomon (the Bill & Ted series, Now You See Me, and yes, the Super Mario Bros. movie) provides some fairly hilarious dialogue to undercut the tension at just the right moments. David Harbour I think has the line of the film when he tells his boss, “I’m going to punch you now. This is a punch,” with the best nervous deadpan I’ve seen in a while.
There are a couple of stylistic choices that set the film apart, too. The first is that Soderbergh seems to understand how stale the heist form is, so the cast has numerous opportunities to point out the inconsistencies. Curt wonders openly about who’s actually paying them for this job. Wertz questions why Charley left his mask in the car when they return from the burglary if he’s not supposed to reveal his identity. Ronald intentionally calls Vanessa “Veronica” in Capelli’s presence, and Capelli instantly calls bullshit on his alleged stupidity. Too much self-awareness and we’re drifting into a meta deconstruction, which ultimately defeats the purpose, but Soderbergh keeps it enough in moderation to make sure we simply recognize that the characters are smarter than the average bear.
I think that self-awareness even extended into the names of the characters from Solomon. The fact that we have a mobster named “Capelli,” which is one letter off from the rival “Scapelli” plumbers in Mario Bros., a character named Doug Jones (same as the famed actor), and a woman named Paula Cole who is literally trying to get her boyfriend to leave his wife because she doesn’t want to wait for her life to be over feel like winks to the audience for the few moments where the movie slows down ever so slightly. I could be wrong, but they all made me chuckle for a couple seconds.
Soderbergh also plays with the picture itself by using older, much wider lenses to film this thing, resulting in a screen effect that mimics the “pan-and-scan” often seen when widescreen movies were converted to 4:3 for TV screens before the advent of HD. It can be a bit awkward-looking at times (I paused on more than one occasion to make sure my TV’s resolution was set correctly), but at its best, it literally “squeezes” the characters to one side of the frame and expands them when they’re in center, a tangible expression of their paranoia and narrowing options in a given moment.
And while the story goes a bit off the rails in the end (the socioeconomic allegory of the real mastermind is alternately poignant and eye roll-inducing), Soderbergh still knows how to build a suspenseful scene. The way Curt, Ronald, and Charley handle the initial hostage situation is tense, methodical, and just the right amount of brilliant. Oddly enough, my biggest disappointment is that this was only the first act. I would have loved to see a tight, two-hour thriller set solely in this house during this crisis, to see what mistakes are made and how the family deals with it.
But that’s a creative choice for another day, and another movie. For what we got, Soderbergh definitely delivered the goods and set an amazing tone. It doesn’t hold up as the film progresses, but it also doesn’t completely fall apart and undo the goodwill of its opening third. The heist movie as a concept really does need to be shelved for a while, if not outright retired, but until that happens, at least there are still a few auteurs out there who can get just a little bit more new blood from this rapidly drying stone.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you burned out on heist movies too? What’s your FMK order for the Culkin brothers? Let me know!