Viewers might feel like pawns in silly 'Knight Moves'

January 23, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Knight Moves" does for chess what "Wind" did for sailing: nothing.

A hysterically overwrought sex-crime thriller set at a chess tournament, it's so busy reminding people it's an actual movie that it all but forgets to tell its story. In fact, it's so hyperactive I suspect that the director, Carl Schenkel, about whom I know nothing, went to film school twice.

It begins in a black and white past, where a child prodigy is whacking the bejabbers out of a regular child over a chess game. Except the regular child isn't so regular; when he loses in seven moves, he jumps across the board and begins to stab the chess boy in the throat with a fountain pen. When he goes home, the "regular" boy finds his dad has left and that his mom is lying in a blood-soaked bed, having slashed her wrists. He responds by studying some chess problems.

The rest of the film is set in the Technicolor present, where the Grand Master (Christopher Lambert), the grown-up chess boy, is leading some kind of double-elimination tournament against a lot of opponents who appear to be from Mars. All of a sudden somebody starts killing young women. He is a suspect, but the killer begins sending him cryptic messages, so he is reluctantly brought aboard an investigative team consisting of a tough old cop (Tom Skerritt), a punky young one (Daniel Baldwin) and a beautiful psychiatrist (Diane Lane.)

This is one of those films that is built around a hopelessly romantic, absurd conceit: that serial murderers are jolly gamesmen who delight in concocting bizarre codes that only the most rarefied of intellects have any chance of deciphering. Of course, most murderers are squalid, seedy creeps with the inner lives of snails, but think how depressing movies about them would be.

Anyway, "Knight Moves" whirls through the standard openings and gambits with more style than sense. The best thing about it is its cast, all seasoned professionals with great battered movie faces. Lambert is one of those cheeky guys who disappears for years at a time, then shows up looking younger than his last movie. A near star since "Greystoke" in the early '80s, he always seems to burst with puppy-like gratitude that he's actually working. Skerritt looks like a brass plate that's been beaten on by large men with ball peen hammers for about a century: It's as if the Battle of Austerlitz was fought between his nostrils and his ears. And Lane is one of those otherwise conventional beauties who has cleverly opted for an "interesting" career rather than a real career, and who makes a critic's job endlessly fascinating.

How nice it would be to see these salty pros in a good movie!


"Knight Moves."

Starring Christopher Lambert and Diane Lane.

Directed by Carl Schenkel.

Released by Republic.

Rate R.

... **

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