'Full Circle' Review: Steven Soderbergh Max Crime Series Draws You In

‘Full Circle’ Review: Steven Soderbergh Max Crime Series Draws You In

Since his “retirement” from filmmaking in 2013, director Steven Soderbergh has never fully backed away from the world of features: He has eight movies to his name in the past decade — more than some of his peers have produced in their entire careers. But Soderbergh did subsequently branch out into the world of TV, a medium he’s approached with the same enterprising, experimental spirit as he does his latter-period films. First came 2014’s “The Knick,” the Cinemax period medical drama helmed entirely by Soderbergh at a time when marquee directors were just starting to dabble in TV; then “Mosaic,” a project released in 2017 as both an interactive app and an HBO series, showing the same interest in new technology that’s led Soderbergh to shoot multiple movies on an iPhone.

“Mosaic” was a collaboration with screenwriter Ed Solomon (“Men in Black,” “Now You See Me”), who also penned Soderbergh’s 1950s noir “No Sudden Move.” The new Max miniseries “Full Circle” rounds out the Soderbergh-Solomon partnership into a trifecta of stripped-down, workmanlike crime yarns. “Full Circle” is the story of a sensational New York case that reveals the city’s connections across race and class, a synopsis that instantly groups it with narratives like “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Lush Life” and “City on Fire,” the sprawling epic adapted for Apple TV+ this spring. To this familiar scaffolding, “Full Circle” grafts a starry ensemble cast and effectively tense set-pieces, occasionally elevating though never fully transcending its faithful take on the genre.

The immediate hook of “Full Circle” is in seeing how its disparate threads will eventually weave into the title’s closed loop. A Guyanese crime syndicate based in Richmond Hill, Queens, targets the family of Manhattan celebrity “Chef Jeff ” (Dennis Quaid, sporting the most lamentable ponytail since Tedros on “The Idol”) for a kidnapping attempt that goes predictably awry. The choice of victim is unorthodox, as are the culprits’ ultraspecific demands: a ransom of precisely $314,159 — the first six digits of pi — to be delivered at exactly 1:11 a.m. in Washington Square Park. Whatever the motivations of queenpin Mrs. Mahabir (CCH Pounder), they seem to involve a shady real estate deal 20 years in the past.

“Full Circle” has flashes of humor as it lays out this rich tapestry. The dogged investigator pursuing the Guyana operation on behalf of the Postal Inspection Service is named Melody Harmony (Zazie Beetz), a musical moniker that belies her abrasive ferocity; her boss is played by Jim Gaffigan, whose character is introduced eating a Hot Pocket — the subject of the comedian’s best-known bit in real life. Mrs. Mahabir is convinced the abduction can help lift a family curse, a combination of mystical paranoia and practical might that’s inherently engaging. But as the gears of its plot start to turn ever faster, “Full Circle” has less time for such details that deepen the characters. Some dramatic reveals hinge on the marriage of Jeff’s daughter Sam (Claire Danes) and son-in-law Derek (Timothy Olyphant), though we have little sense of them outside the fast-paced, high-pressure context of the kidnapping.

The presence of high-wattage stars like Danes, Olyphant and Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome (“When They See Us”) as Mahabir’s belligerent nephew contrasts with the unglamorous, often handheld camera work, though both are characteristic of Soderbergh’s recent style. (“Let Them All Talk,” starring Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen, was shot aboard an actual cruise ship, with minimal equipment, in just two weeks.) “Full Circle” is the product of a wildly prolific craftsman, and shows signs of the ruthless efficiency that enables this pace; some episodes practically end mid-sentence, while certain pieces of context are sped past too quickly to make sense of. But there’s a baseline of competency that comes with Soderbergh and Solomon’s decades of experience, here put in service of compelling themes like karma and the long shadow of colonialism. “Full Circle” is a minor work from a major voice, though the show completes its arc with aplomb.

The first two episodes of “Full Circle” premiere on Max on July 13, with two new episodes airing weekly on Thursdays.