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The Enduring Thrill Ride of Steven Soderbergh Heist Movies

From ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ to ‘Logan Lucky’ to the forthcoming ‘No Sudden Move,’ Soderbergh has made—and continues to make—an indelible mark on the heist movie genre

HBO Max/Warner Bros./Bleecker Street/Ringer illustration

This Thursday, the film No Sudden Move comes to HBO Max. It’s a period crime thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh, which centers on a scheme—oh, you stopped reading after “crime thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh,” didn’t you? Fair enough. After all, we have decades of evidence that this particular combination of genre and director produces consistently excellent results.

Many of Soderbergh’s best stories revolve around thieves, crooks, and drug dealers: The Informant!, Magic Mike, and especially Traffic, which won him an Academy Award for Best Director in 2001. But his work in the realm of the heist film will go down as the most enduring aspect of his legacy, from Out of Sight to the Ocean’s trilogy to Logan Lucky, which refers to itself as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven” in a winking line of dialogue. No Sudden Move is Soderbergh’s latest heist—or at least heist-adjacent—film, and its release offers an opportunity to look back at what makes these movies so special.

The most important ingredient of Soderbergh heist films actually has nothing to do with Soderbergh. Think back to the movies you’ve seen from this genre: Widows, Hell or High Water, or either version of The Italian Job; sci-fi thrillers like Inception, reality-bending indies like American Animals, or David Mamet’s densely written but bluntly titled Heist; from a farce like A Fish Called Wanda to the dark and dour The Town, which is about as funny as being pistol-whipped by a pair of Massholes in hockey masks.

Consider every heist movie you’ve ever seen, and try to think of one that wasn’t at least entertaining. I can’t.

Heist movies can vary wildly in tone and quality, but they’ve generally got a higher hit rate than any other film genre. There are many reasons for this. First, there’s the category’s inherently escapist nature. Pretty much every person who’s walked into a theater or plugged in a cable box dreams of getting rich quick, which is part of what gives the heist movie its allure. Not only that, these films tend to be told primarily, if not completely, from the perspective of the thief. That means the criminal—the person we usually think of as the bad guy—has to be at least somewhat sympathetic. The score enables our hero, or at worst our antihero, to achieve some laudable personal goal: providing for a child, escaping a life of privation, paying off some onerous debt.

And sometimes, the person the heroes are stealing from is a real jerk. Stories about a dashing criminal stealing from The Man have ensorcelled audiences since Ned Kelly, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and beyond, combining the transgressive titillation of crime without the discomfort of throwing in one’s lot with actual evil. For a story about a heroic thief who steals riches and The Girl from a villain who’s equal parts petty, smarmy, and cruel, one could queue up any one of dozens of adaptations of Robin Hood—or Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.

Then there’s the structure. Heist movies feature plenty of comforting and familiar film tropes, from Getting the Gang Together montages—which in these cases invite the viewer to identify with the dashing and heroic criminals, as if the people on both sides of the screen are part of the same club—to puzzles that need to be solved, to one or more classic fun movie activities: car chases, gunplay, gadgetry, and so on.

Any marginally competent director can take those raw materials and give the audience a fun two-hour ride, and many marginally competent filmmakers have. But Soderbergh is an auteur, and great directors project their own personalities onto their heist films. Spike Lee’s Inside Man is about the complexities of life in New York and the hidden evils that lurk under the surface of our society. Christopher Nolan’s Inception is about the deceptive nature of time. And Michael Mann’s Heat projects the internal turmoil of cool guys in suits across a sprawling metropolis.

Soderbergh’s heist movies, meanwhile, are focused on dialogue, star power, and glamour. All films in this genre, even the serious ones, are talky, but Soderbergh’s make Gilmore Girls look like The Thin Red Line. The Ocean’s films and Logan Lucky fizz over the edge of the glass with jokes, quips, and gags, delivered by characters whose simplicity of conception provides clarity not only to the viewer, but to the actors, who are having so much fun that their enthusiasm bleeds through the screen.

And while any heist movie lives and dies with its lead actors, Soderbergh’s take great casting to another level. One thread from the Rewatchables episode about Ocean’s Eleven bears repeating here: It’s a movie that lets movie stars be movie stars. Soderbergh cast George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts, and gave them good lighting, good clothes, and good dialogue—how could he have ended up with anything but one of the coolest movies of the 21st century? Not to mention these movies have the likes of Elliott Gould and Hilary Swank playing the eighth-most-important characters on their respective rosters; it’s very, very difficult to screw up a movie with a cast like that.

The final piece of Soderbergh’s glittering puzzle is the setting. His films take us to interesting places viewers want to go but wouldn’t ordinarily get the chance: behind the scenes at a NASCAR race; the vault of a Las Vegas casino; Amsterdam and Lake Como. Even Out of Sight—can you think of a sexier place, in 1998, than the trunk of a Ford Thunderbird, if Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney are there?

It helps that Soderbergh’s heist films, in addition to their deep benches, are festooned with cameos and stunt casting. Rusty Ryan is cool because he has cool clothes, chucks around cool quips, and is played by Brad Pitt. More than that, he’s cool because he’s defrauding Joshua Jackson and Topher Grace. Not only does Logan Lucky take you into the bowels of the Coca-Cola 600, it immerses you in the sport by casting the brightest stars in NASCAR as cops and delivery drivers. Everything about these movies is magnetic, from the gravitational pull of Hollywood superstardom to the instant wealth of a successful heist to the constant air of celebrity: not just fortune, but fame as well.

No Sudden Move checks all those boxes, from a headline-grabbing cast that combines the director’s repertory company—Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bill Duke—with award magnets and zeitgeisty TV stars. Throw in slick production design, a strong sense of place, and a heavy coat of clever dialogue, and maybe this won’t go down as Ocean’s 1955, but you’ll recognize highlights from Soderbergh’s old playbook.

And why wouldn’t he play the hits? After all, he’s spent the past 25 years perfecting them.