Knife Fight (***)

knife_fightThough Knife Fight ultimately abandons its sharp edge (no pun intended) in favor of a feel good climax, it’s still an often bleak drama about politics that manages to satirize campaigning rather effectively. Inferior to George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011) but perhaps a bit on the underrated side itself, this is an often engrossing motion picture. Yes, there are flaws, and co-writer/director Bill Guttentag isn’t especially interested in reality, but damn if it didn’t work for me.

Now maybe some of this has to do with the joys of seeing Rob Lowe back in the realm of politics with a starring role here, and maybe some of it also has to do with me just being a political junkie. Anyone expecting a hard-hitting look at the inner workings of getting a candidate for office elected and/or re-elected will be sorely disappointed, but those looking for a bit of a slimy good time will find things to enjoy, especially Lowe’s winning performance.

For expert political strategist Paul Turner (Lowe), it all comes down to winning. He doesn’t care about whatever skeletons are in your closet or what scandals are around the corner. Paul is a true believer and if he’s in your corner, he’ll do all he can to make sure you emerge victorious. You just have to be willing to bring a gun to a knife fight, as it were (so there’s your title). When we meet him, he and his assistant Kerstin (Jamie Chung) are juggling a pair of candidates up for re-election and about to take on a third hoping to win office for the first time. One is a cheating Kentucky governor named Larry Becker (Eric McCormick), a soon to be blackmailed California senator named Stephen Green (David Harbour), and an idealistic free clinic doctor named Penelope Nelson (Carrie-Anne Moss) who’s hoping to beat the odds and become the Governor of California. In Paul’s corner is a reporter named Peaches O’Dell (Julie Bowen) and a shady behind the scenes man known as Dimitris (Richard Schiff). The thing is, the work Paul’s doing is beginning to haunt him, so even though Penelope is a long shot, he finds himself drawn into helping her, potentially at the expense of Larry and Stephen, who are relying on him to save the day. Most of the plot developments are telegraphed in advance, but there’s a pleasure to be had in seeing it all unfold as it does.

knife fightRob Lowe doesn’t get many starring roles anymore, and while he’s not awards worthy, I was reminded of his excellent turn on NBC’s “The West Wing” here. Especially in his scenes with a scene-stealing Richard Schiff, the comparison is inevitable.  Lowe especially is able to get you to buy into this black-hearted operative slowly turning into a do-gooder. The likes of Eric McCormick and David Harbour soundly portray imperfect politicians, while Carrie-Anne Moss properly exudes hope and a can do attitude as she seeks to challenge conventions. Jamie Chung is solid, if under-used, with the same being said for Julie Bowen.

Credit certainly goes to filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Chris Lehane for making a film that’s as bleak as this one for most of the running time. Guttentag is a no-frills director, but his script that he wrote with Lehane gets the details right. It may be filtered through a hollywood lens, but it still resembles what you might see during the real thing. I honestly would have preferred if Guttentag and Lehane had opted to focus just on politics and not on a number of moral dilemmas, but that’s just one smallish complaint that I had. By and large, they did a very solid job here with the material.

Knife Fight would make an interesting companion piece to the aforementioned film The Ides of March, though I’d ultimately say to opt for the latter if it comes down to a choice. Still, you can do a lot worse than this one, especially in the bleak cinematic fields of January. Rob Lowe is the main selling point here, and those interested in political dramas/satires will likely get their money’s worth.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!