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MOVIE REVIEW : The Strange Case of ‘Knight Moves’

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Occasionally a movie flips over into such off-the-wall absurdity that it stuns you. How did this happen?

The new “erotic thriller” “Knight Moves” (citywide) is a case in point. It’s about a Vancouver chess tournament in which a feral, sexy international grandmaster, played by French star Christopher Lambert, spends his off-time playing a cat-and-mouse game with a psychopathic serial killer, a maniac who taunts him over the phone, dribbling out opaque “clues” to his future crimes.

Can you buy that? How about a sudden romance between the grandmaster and a bosomy psychiatric investigator (Diane Lane), highlighted by dreamy walks across drizzly beaches and newspeak romantic exchanges: “You make me feel things I’ve never felt before.” “You should face your feelings.” How about those quizzical or scowling cops Tom Skerritt and Daniel Baldwin, who keep manhandling Lambert and tossing him in the clink? How about Lambert’s dimpled little daughter, Erica? Or Ferdy Mayne, of Polanski’s “Vampire Killers,” as the mysterious, blind chess guru?

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How about the serial killer’s modus operandi : putting clown makeup on his victims, draining their blood and writing cryptic messages on the walls? How about the grandmaster’s loony opponents? Or that climax in a leaky basement, with everybody bashing and thrashing around in what seems to be a small indoor lake?

How about. . . . But why go on? “Knight Moves,” which isn’t played for laughs, hurls common sense out the window as soon as it introduces star-producer Lambert, with his French accent, as “Peter Sanderson.” (Of the Cannes Sandersons?)

This isn’t a movie with one or two lapses of logic. It’s a movie where logic itself would be a lapse--from a screenplay, by executive producer Brad (“Body of Evidence”) Mirman, of such near-perfect silliness that not a single incident or exchange of dialogue is believable. “Knight Moves” is a movie for people who perceive the world only through other movies. Bad ones. It’s about the world of chess in the same sense that “Rambo III” is about international diplomacy, or “Friday the 13th” is about facing your feelings.

Faced with this nonsense, director Carl Schenkel, who made the zingy 1989 reggae thriller “The Mighty Quinn,” opts for stylistic overkill--and he only succeeds in the opening flashback sequence, with his showy monochrome shots of a violent chess tournament and its bloody aftermath. When the dialogue starts, Schenkel is in trouble, and he probably knows it. There’s so much wild energy and so many scenes punctuated with screams or slamming doors it’s as if the entire movie were a nonstop temper tantrum.

Should we give “Knight Moves” points for destroying the old cliche about chess players being kooky introverts, and replacing it with a new cliche that shows them as chic, sex-mad, two-fisted, gunslinging studs and suspected serial killers? Writer Mirman keeps suggesting that life is a game, that movies are a game. And, in some ways, he’s right. “Knight Moves” (MPAA rated R, for language, sensuality, violence) is a game--but it’s closer to three-card monte or tiddlywinks than chess.

‘Knight Moves’

Christopher Lambert:Peter Sanderson

Diane Lane:Kathy Sheppard

Tom Skerritt:Frank Sedman

Daniel Baldwin:Andy Wagner

A Republic Pictures presentation of an El Khouri-Defait-Geissler production, with Lamb Bear Entertainment and Ink Slinger Productions, released by Interstar Releasing. Director Carl Schenkel. Producer Christopher Lambert. Executive producer/screenplay Brad Mirman. Camera Dietrich Lohmann. Editor Norbert Herzner. Costumes Deborah Everton, Trish Keaton. Music Anne Dudley. Production design Grame Murray. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

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MPAA-rated R (language, violence, sensuality).

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