MRR Review: "Knife Fight"

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A political strategist juggling three clients questions whether or not to take the high road as the ugly side of his work begins to haunt him.
2.5

MRR Review: "Knife Fight"

-- Rating: NR (language)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: April 25, 2012
Directed by: Bill Guttentag
Genre: Drama

Clever political dramas centered on the election season are enjoyable to watch, but director Bill Guttentag's "Knife Fight" is ultimately a toothless representation of the genre. Although the script is smart at times and the performances are uniformly good, there's something missing from this film that prevents it from becoming a classic political flick.

Rob Lowe plays Paul Turner, a political adviser who calls himself "the master of disaster." Among his current political clients are a veteran running for a California Senate seat and the incumbent governor of Kentucky. Complicating both political campaigns are potential sex scandals. The Californian veteran, played by David Harbour, had a steamy encounter with an opportunistic masseuse that is being exploited by the opposition. The Kentucky governor, a character who seems to be based on John Edwards, is a chronic philanderer played by Eric McCormack. However, despite their extramarital affairs and lack of substance, both men are still preferable to their conservative opposition. Turner smears the accusers and does what he feels he must to protect his clients, despite the twinges of his conscience. When he gets a call from an idealistic doctor, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, who wants to run for governor, Turner agrees to help despite his doubts about her chances of winning.

Lowe is very believable in his role as a high-powered political adviser who's willing to play hardball in order to win. Unfortunately, Turner is never fully allowed to be the slimy character he should be. While it is obvious that Turner has the moxie and ambition to be one of the best political fixers in Washington, D.C., it is less believable that Turner is really interested in improving the world through his job. However, it is clear that the film expects audiences to embrace Turner as a good guy in tough circumstances. It's a difficult role to play, but Lowe is able to maintain a core of likability even when Turner commits reprehensible acts.

Unlike other political films, there are plenty of supporting roles for women in "Knife Fight." All are expertly cast and deliver solid performances. Particularly fun to watch is Carrie-Anne Moss as Penelope, who eventually convinces Turner to support her political run. Jamie Chung, who plays Turner's intelligent assistant Kerstin, is able to make something special out what could have been a typical sidekick role. Particularly moving is Kerstin's explanation of the difficulties of being an Asian child. Fans of "Modern Family" should enjoy Julie Bowen's brief role as a television anchor desperate for the scoop.

Written by Bill Guttentag and Chris Lehane, the script for "Knife Fight" has plenty of good one liners and a thorough understanding of the minutiae of a political election. The fast-paced script also seems particularly apt for a film that shows the late nights and stress that accompany election season. However, it seems to have one plot too many. While none of the three main plot lines are meaty enough to make a satisfying drama as written, the similarities between the story lines for Turner's governor and Senate hopeful makes the script seem a bit repetitive. Changing one of these sex scandals for another political scandal du jour may have been a better choice.

Despite this structural flaw, there is no doubt that the writers of "Knife Fight" have an excellent understanding of the political system. This understanding is due, no doubt, to the presence Chris Lehane, who was an adviser to Bill Clinton and a press secretary for Al Gore. Lehane gets so many details right, it is frustrating that there isn't a better structure in place to showcase his insider knowledge. An election film with a tone that leans toward gravitas and subtlety may have been a better pairing for his experience.

Audiences should be aware that Guttentag's script is completely partisan, although there are a few monologues that will leave right-leaning viewers rolling their eyes. While Turner's liberal clients have severe flaws, they are portrayed as the preferable choice when compared with the crazy Tea Party opposition. It's easy for Turner to remain sympathetic to audiences when it is obvious that he has been representing the most palatable choices in the elections. Creating conservative candidates that had more reasonable political views may have made Turner's redemption more interesting.

Fans of political dramas should add "Knife Fight" to their future viewing roster. The fast-paced script may stumble in places, but there are enough clever lines to always keep the audience entertained. Due to its lightweight tone, "Knife Fight" may be the perfect palate cleanser for those viewers who are still tired of last season's election.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars