I'm a huge Steven Soderbergh fan and I know I'm far from alone. In fact, I get the feeling that many of his recent pictures have been made up of actors whom are also Soderbergh fans, not only because of the quirky, seemingly-insouciant way that he produces and directs his films, but also because he tends to focus on screenplays that give them a lot to work with. No Sudden Move is no different in this respect, as it boasts a star-studded cast in larger roles (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm) and smaller ones (Amy Seimetz, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, Frankie Shaw), and has the twisting story that gives all of them their moment(s) in the spotlight. In brief, the film is about a bunch of gangsters trying to make some money while eagerly double-crossing each other at every turn and sweeping a bunch of "normal" people into their cloud, while the real gangsters that run everything from above simply wait for the dust to settle. That really doesn't do the story justice, but it's difficult to go into detail without revealing what should be experienced firsthand by anyone reading this.
Given my childhood origins, the setting of mid-50s Detroit is appealing to me from the outset. The fact that the story centers around people trying to press every lever they can to get ahead in a society described by one character as "You think you have power. You think you have influence. But you don't." As it turns out, that character is basically right because history tells us that he's right. But those characters don't know that and they play every scene like they have the world by the short hairs or are ready with a backup plan (or two or three) if their grip happens to slip. The script also weaves in the sordid history of Detroit's "urban renewal" (Black Bottom, etc.) and the rampant corporate corruption that still rules the nation (and soils the air.) This is a regular feature of Soderbergh's films, as he's never far away from dropping a statement or two into the otherwise fictional stories that he delivers. This one also carries little allusions to America's racial politics and their constant presence in the automotive industry (Big Corp's attraction to fascism springs to mind these days), as well as subtle hints to the sexuality that so many kept hidden at that time.
Another aspect that's been a regular feature of his career is the use of unusual equipment. Having shot films with only a Super 8 camera or with only an Iphone, this time he doesn't go quite that far, but does use a recurring format for most of the scenes around and inside the homes of the few "regular" Detroit inhabitants, which I can only call a "peephole cam", as it shades the corners of the screen and enlarges the center, just like it would if you were looking through a peephole in a door. I'm not sure if the intent was to represent the audience peeping into the lives of regular folk, while we were part of the vast conspiracy that the otherwise criminal element (both street and corporate) pursues throughout the story, but that's the closest I can come to figuring out what the purpose of that particular mechanic was. I have to say that it was kind of a distraction to the film overall, but it didn't quite reach the level of an annoyance. Maybe it's just because I wasn't in on the joke. But a lot of the characters could say that, too.
Don Cheadle does well as a man just trying to catch a break after a life gone wrong. Likewise, Del Toro handles his role as the unreliable gangster with aplomb, although I feel like he's become a bit typecast, as his role resembled something of a fusion of his parts in Traffic (another Soderbergh production) and Snatch. It's always good to be thought of whenever the right casting is needed for a specific role, but it becomes less so when those roles start looking and sounding the same. Similarly, Jon Hamm seems locked into "straight man" roles, whether they're genuinely straight/heroic/law-abiding or not. In contrast, David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) is a semi-surprising joy as an imposed-upon accountant who's living the typical American, middle class home life, while carrying on an affair at the office and, when pressed to confront his boss for a document that will keep his family alive, announces every punch that he's about to throw with: "This is a punch." It's as effective a declaration as one might expect from a man who's never thrown one and who later reveals just how much of a lack of control he has over what's going on around him, especially in an excellent motel room scene with the partner of his affair, played by Frankie Shaw, who simply shines in her few minutes of screen time. Bill Duke also has several excellent moments with his usual penetrating-stare-above-lowered-glasses move.
I thought the production was really well done on a visual level. Those homes looked like they came right out of a lot of Detroit neighborhoods that are still standing today. Also, many of the city's landmark buildings looked appropriately spiffy as they were at that time. I wondered a bit about a couple details, such as the regular references to the "Big Four" of the auto industry. I've never heard anyone refer to anything but the "Big Three" (aka GM, Ford, Chrysler) and I'm pretty sure Packard-Studebaker was never large enough to be in that grouping. (Similarly, 1954 was the year that AMC was created and they were still never considered to be in the top tier.) I appreciated the mentions of the unjust removal of the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods, but wondered that they didn't cite the highway construction that was the official reason (removal of Black residents and businesses being the primary one.) But a tip of the hat to writer, Ed Solomon, for also being cognizant of Detroit's mob history, with the mention of The Purple Gang, although 1954 was long after they had any presence in the city.
But all of that detail can add to a perception that there's simply too much going on at any one moment. While I'm always interested in a complex story or one with multiple angles, there is a limit to all things. While it's a measure of respect for the intelligence of many of the characters that they can see multiple angles and seem prepared for most of what befalls them and have already mapped the routes around the bad spots (Soderbergh takes care to show Curt Goynes (Cheadle) setting up his backup plans, rather than using them as deus ex machina-style surprises), one occasionally has to wonder at the ability of any one person to cover that many angles and not be completely paranoid. I think Soderbergh does a good job in representing Goynes and Russo (Del Toro) as essentially friendless because of the lives they've chosen to lead, but I think it's fair to wonder just how much off-the-cuff scheming can go so right. Until it doesn't. So, I can't say this was Soderbergh's best crime/heist film (Out of Sight still probably takes that title) but it's definitely a solid example of his craft and well worth seeing.