“This is going to be a punch.”

The scene in which David Harbour looms, trembling, over his boss and delivers this line is one of those rare genre-movie moments in which I find myself wide awake, leaning forward, and loving the movies.

How many movies like this — populated with crooks on the streets, crooks in middle-class American families, crooks in the police force, and crooks as corporation heads, all chasing after money in a game of schemes and double-crosses — have we seen? Director Steven Soderbergh has made his fair share of them, from the stylish and sexy Out of Sight to the Oceans heist comedies (with their distinctive blent of glamour, smarts, and smart-assery). So it’s a surprise and a delight to slip into the familiar murkiness of these moody color schemes, these moral quagmires, and find myself delighted by engaging characters, surprising scenarios, and inspired twists.

Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) wants to be an “ex-con,” but he’s still entangled in shadowy scheming, hoping to settle some scores. [Image from HBO Max trailer.]
There are quite a few moments like these peppering No Sudden Move‘s narrative: funny, suspenseful… complicated. Ed Solomon’s screenplay is literary, challenging, wise, and ultimately quite satisfying — I think it’s his best work. The busy web of storylines is cleverly spun, rewarding close attention. And the characters are sharply drawn. (Note: If I recall correctly, Solomon was my first filmmaker interview, way back in 2003, when he was promoting Levity, which remains the only feature film he’s directed.)

The less said about this story the better — there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in connecting many mysterious dots. Suffice it to say that it’s 1954, and Jones (Brendan Fraser doing his best best Orson Welles) — rounds up three accomplished crooks who sniff at each other like dogs that can’t get along. There’s Curt (Don Cheadle) who is fresh out of prison and well aware that he’s marked for death; there’s Ronald (Benicio Del Toro), a man of dubious judgment — which is immediately clear as we meet him having an affair with a mob boss’s wife (Julia Fox); and then there’s Charley (Keiran Culkin), an aggressive, violent wildcard who takes the lead in a job so full of secrets that everybody’s nervous.  They’re tasked with holding hostage the family of Matt (David Harbour) until Matt retrieves an important document from the safe at his workplace. What is it? It’ll be a while before we find out. And when we do, we see the truth dawning on the crooks that they’ve been drawn into deeper and more dangerous waters than they anticipated.

Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) has his eye on a fortune. Does he have enough lucky breaks left to get away with it? [Image from HBO Max trailer.]
I love stories like this — they remind us that there is no such thing as small-time crime. Everything is connected, and before you know it, your indiscretion — an affair, a theft, a lie — makes you vulnerable in ways that more ambitious evildoers can exploit. Soderbergh is wise to the value of noir — a genre that reminds us that nobody is truly innocent and there won’t be any fairy-tale endings in this world, in this life. We’re all complicit in some ways. And those who act on their conscience, as Matt’s young son Matthew tries to do, may learn the hard way that deeds done with the best of intentions can make a bad situation worse.

But the greatest pleasure of this, as with most Soderbergh films, is the technical execution. Unless you’re allergic to the fish-eye-lens style — and it’s been bothering a lot of people, so you might be — you’ll savor the light, the colors, the effortless grace of the camera. I did, anyway. Soderbergh has always seized upon any kind of narrative as an excuse to dance, and man, he still has the moves. After the modest and quirky pleasures of Logan Lucky‘s heist hi-jinx, No Sudden Move is evidence that he’s still capable of taking a strong script and making something masterful from it.

Young Matthew (Noah Jupe) gets caught at home when his father (David Harbour, offscreen) gets a visit from armed crooks.

As usual, he seems to have a long line of Hollywood A-listers — aging veterans and fresher faces — eager to work with him, and, with smart casting by Carmen Cuba, he stirs up a spicy stew of stars. They find a cool, easygoing chemistry here, and the secret of their success is that nobody overreaches. (“Overreach,” by the way, becomes a very important word in this film.) Every one of the big stars here dials it up to, oh, about 7 out of 10, and that keeps things from feeling too showy, too eager to please, too ambitious for awards. That carefully sustained tone gives the film a convincing cohesion. The ensemble is (with one exception) uniformly strong — Cheadle reveling in his meaty role (one of his greatest performances), Del Toro enjoying playing a fool who catches a few lucky breaks, Harbour leaning into his Desperate Harrison Ford voice, and Fraser making a major impression in what could have been a forgettable role. (He’s better than ever. Glad to hear that Scorsese has given him a role in his next film.)

The only casting misstep comes late in the film. While it’s clearly meant to be a sneaky surprise, it’s also a doozy of a spell-breaker. (I think the last time a surprise appearance disrupted a film for me as severely as this came in the middle of Nolan’s Interstellar.) I won’t reveal who it is here, as you may find the choice inspired. But it knocked me sideways.

The storytelling stays strong all the way to the end, despite the stunt-casting stumble, bringing us to what strikes me as one of the more cynical conclusions I’ve seen in a long time. Brian Tallerico sums it up as “a story of men with ulterior motives, in which only the truly corrupt come out on top.” Having said that, I have to admit that it also stings in its truthfulness. This is a picture a capitalism so corrupt that those at the top, like the almost-soulless restaurant millionaire in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, are well-aware of, and on some level disgusted with, their own miserable inhumanity, but they have no capacity for change. Everyone is compromising, and nobody sees a way out unless they’re momentarily seduced by that fantasy that tells them to take the money and run.

The law, represented by Joe Finney (Jon Hamm), is on the case. Or is this officer just another opportunist? [Image from HBO Max trailer.]
I can’t help but wonder what this movie would have felt like in a theater. The imagery certainly seems worthy of that grand canvas. But even watching it on HBO Max’s streaming service, I think I can say with some confidence that this is substantial new volume in the library that includes masterpieces like Chinatown and gems like Cutter’s Way that fly lower on the radar. And it comes unexpectedly from an artist who doesn’t seem driven to make major, self-important statements or to draw attention to himself. Soderbergh seems to be playing for the love of the game, and playing it with patience and mastery. Patience isn’t a word I often think of in describing a genre film, but this one takes the time it needs to tell a rich, panoramic story about America. Soderbergh, whose most famous American movie set up Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich against cruel and corrupt corporations, seems to see almost all of human society as a giant web of con games. But he still believes in the possibility of occasional justice. And he’s not so jaded as to give up on occasional flickers of grace. There’s a sense in his storytelling by which those who hold to some sense of honor and conscience can show us a way toward redemption or at least some relief. Villains, meanwhile, rule the world, but in doing so they are damned to hells of their own making. Sounds like a God’s-eye view of the world to me.

And I think No Sudden Move, like a bottle of Scotch that retails for $88, and like the great Don Cheadle himself, is going to age well. I can imagine bumping this up a half-star on an other viewing. We’ll see.