For those of you who felt “Ides Of March” was entirely too cerebral and challenging, here comes the dunderheaded “Knife Fight.” A political satire that treads no new ground, this name-heavy comedy wastes an engaging central performance by Rob Lowe, who is completely game to play all sides of the political machine, swinging from the gubernatorial rafters like a contemporary “Phantom Of The Paradise,” bent on sabotaging his opposition, screwing the system and leaving little more than scorched earth for his clients to walk over.
Lowe is Paul Turner, a strategist nearly surgically attached to his Blackberry. His clients include an aw-shucks Kentucky governor with a penchant for extramarital relations (Eric McCormack, miscast) and a California senator staring sexual blackmail in the face (David Harbour). Providing damage control for both, Turner and his young assistant (Jamie Chung) are naturally inclined fight dirty to protect both of them.
The dirty fight, in this case, involves slander and discredit. “Knife Fight” and last year’s “Ides Of March” seem to push forward the narrative that, for rich white men to succeed, young women need to be fed to the machine. The problem is, neither film seems to understand the weight, or even the darkly comic potential, of such an idea. “Ides Of March,” like many other lesser political films prior, simply skated by with the tacit acknowledgement that “this is how things work,” which did little to expose the misogynist notions prevalent in the political world, instead finding more interesting material in the idea of once-principled white men compromising their values. Yawn.
“Knife Fight” doesn’t even approach that level, as Turner gives no second thought to bringing up past prostitution arrests and prior drug use in the accusers’ past. It backfires in one instance, while in the other case it results in the suicide attempt of an aide just because she once snorted a line of cocaine. Turner attempts to destroy this girl’s life without a second thought, but when it leaves blood on his hands, he’s distraught. It’s the typical trope of a heartless efficiency machine suddenly held accountable for his actions and growing a heart, and it’s entirely unconvincing. The film Lowe is acting in is a scabrous political satire where people do anything to succeed. Not only is “Knife Fight” meant to show the arc of a man distraught about his life decisions, but it completely fumbles the ball in a last act reversal that again shows the ugliness of the political arena, and how Turner continues to sleep well at night.
A San Francisco free-clinic nurse (Carrie-Anne Moss) powers the last act of the film, a principled, low-profile candidate who enters the California state senate race with no prior experience. Turner’s attempts to dissuade her from running are unheeded, and suddenly he finds himself advising a campaign with a chance to do something other than merely keep the wheels moving. At this point, “Knife Fight” shifts gears from an entirely cynical comedy about the incestuous political system to a happy-go-lucky film about ambitious go-getters reinventing the system. Either way, it’s implausible, as the film can’t help but show its seams as a cheap, somewhat amateurish production, utilizing as-few-as-possible extras and limited locations (it’s also obnoxiously, and perhaps unintentionally, scored like a bad campaign commercial) despite a story that spans an entire country.
In Turner’s moments of crisis, he sits down clandestinely with an older independent investigator who digs up the dirt so his hands stay clean. That character’s played with a salt-and-pepper beard by Richard Schiff, in a mini-”West Wing” reunion, and the two of them have an easy rat-a-tat chemistry that comes naturally from old friends (or, in this case, people who spent multiple years together on a television series). These scenes crackle with low-key wit, the two of them intellectually appealing as they map out otherwise barbaric plans. It’s a hint of the cutthroat, honest movie “Knife Fight” could have been, and not the compromised, wet blanket lecture for which it settles. [D+]