A Caper Without the Cool
No Sudden Move
Steven Soderbergh is the undisputed king of the modern caper. His Ocean's SeriesAlthough the franchise began back in the days of the Rat Pack with the original Ocean's 11, the franchise truly gained prominence with the Clooney/Pitt-starring, Soderbergh-directed Ocean's reboot series from 2001. The daring criminals would go on to have several cool and stylish capers through the series, redefining the heist genre in the process. reinvigorated crime capers, adding in a dash of style, and a lot of "cool", to the whole genre. Once his films came along, all capers had to have that same cool mix of style and substance to carry the day. Either you compared favorably to Ocean's Eleven or you were, pardon the pun, chum in the water.
His style of capers isn't easy to duplicate, though. The closest anyone else has come to pulling of the same trick -- cool style and crime capers in equal measure -- was Guy Ritchie, but where Soderbergh could make riffs on the genre that didn't feel like the same shtick over and over again (Logan Lucky, No Sudden Move), Ritchie basically made the same movie again and again (his King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is just his usual crime caper, but in Arthurian times, for example). Hell, even the proper sequel in the series that didn't have 3oderbergh attached, Ocean's 8, lacked the director's stylish panache. 3oderbergh is the only one you call for this kind of film.
To an extent, his new caper film, No Sudden Move, has all the hallmarks of a proper Soderbergh caper: twisty plotting, a star studded cast, a bit of humor to keep it all breezily moving along, and reveals after reveals to show just how far down the twisty rabbit hole the director is willing to go. And yet it's also lacking something, some hook that keeps you invested. The story is twisty enough, sure, and it's interesting to watch the director at work as the crime is laid out, and then perpetrated, but there isn't that spark that makes this a must-watch film. It's a one-time-through picture where the director's other, better capers can be watched over and over again.
In the film we're introduced to Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), a career criminal who, in his past, got caught up in a scheme that backfired, resulting in a massive bloodbath with a huge body count. He was arrested, and jailed for his part in the scheme (and then his wife divorced him and married someone else), and now that he's out he's also on the outs with all the old organizations he used to work for. Taking a job that sounds much too good to be true, from a very closed off mob operative (Brendan Fraser), Curt ends up working with Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin). The job, to babysit a family while one of their number goes off with the father, Matt Wertz (David Harbour), to collect something from the safe in his boss's office.
Quickly, though, things go south as the item Wertz is supposed to get -- a packet of papers -- isn't at the office after all. The team starts fighting, their connections disavow them, and suddenly everyone is out to kill the criminals. The only thing they have going for them is that packet of papers: if they can get it (and the information within) they have a bargaining chip. Get the good, get a bigger payout, and live like kings; that's the plan, but rarely do plans work out like the criminals expect.
Functionally No Sudden Move works well. It's a properly twisty caper and, as the run time goes on, more and more double-crosses happen. That's part of why it works so well on first viewing -- you want to see who will betray who next -- but also why it doesn't work as well on further times through. Once you know all the twists, the shock value of it all falls away. The Ocean's films (at least the good ones) work because the twists and turns, while fun, are secondary to hanging out with a good crew. Here, the twists and turns are all we've got.
Naturally, the big issue is that the characters in the film aren't that fun to be around. Don't get me wrong, Cheadle, del Toro, and Culkin are great actors and they do what they can with their characters. But where Danny Ocean's team were all in "the life" as a lark, and you could appreciate them as "good" people outside their crime (which, the movie admits, they're doing as a way to screw over a very bad guy), all of these leads in No Sudden Move are nasty, career criminals. We're not given any reason to think of them other than low-level scum, and there's little in the way of humanizing moments for us to latch on to so we can care about them at all.
That right there weakens everything about the film: since we don't care about the characters we also don't care if they get betrayed or not. As the crime escalates, and more and more money ends up in their greedy pot, we're never once hoping that they get away with it. The crime itself gets more and more audacious (and yes, i realize I'm not saying what the crime really is but that's a big spoiler for the back-half of the film), but we're never invested in whether Curt, Ronald, and Charley get away with it or not. We need to want them to succeed but No Sudden Move never gives that to us.
I think part of the problem is that this film is very much in the vein of Soderbergh's late period work. The director retired from film making for a time before coming back in 2016, and some of his films (like this one and High Flying Bird) have this weird, clinical feel to them. He's been filming everything from a reserve, feeling disconnected from his characters in a way he never did with the Ocean's team. It's weird because the director has taken to filming on iPhones, a more personal device, and yet it seems to have pushed him further away from his material.
No Sudden Move is a stylish period piece, a Detroit-set film that reeks of old-era style. But it's also a very closed off film, one much more interested in the crime itself than the characters perpetrating it. The Ocean's series live by its characters, spending time getting you invested in each and every one of them before they pulled off their heist. If this film had given as much time to one of the crooks here that it did for any one of the Ocean's gang, this film could have sung. We don't get that kind of connection though so we end up feeling as removed from the crew of 3oderbergh himself.
This is the kind of movie that looks great on paper, and is even worth watching once. But a classic of the form, or of Soderbergh's catalog? Hardly. It's fine enough, but you expect more from the master of the form.