The film is underwhelming right from the start, zeroing in on -- you guessed it -- a PR expert named Paul Turner (Rob Lowe), who specializes in spin and public image. With the help of his assistant, Kerstin (Jamie Chung), he juggles two clients: senator Stephen Green (David Harbour), whose tryst with a money-hungry massage artist named Tawny (Brooke Newton); and governor Larry Becker (Eric McCormack), who is trying to win a re-election bid against a baseball player-turned-politician. In the middle of the chaos, Penelope Nelson (Carrie-Anne Moss), a smart, idealistic doctor in charge of a free clinic, repeatedly asks Paul for his help in running for governor. Paul utilizes the power of his media contacts, ruthless insider Dimitris Vargas (Richard Schiff) and sexy TV reporter Peaches O'Dell (Julie Bowen), to twist the red off of his clients' hands and onto others, without a second thought about who he might hurt in the process.
I doubt it is breaking news to anyone in the world that sometimes, politicians (and other people in the public eye) do bad things and there are people to cover those things up, but that's the story that Guttentag seems to be trying to blow the lid off of here. His methods aren't particularly fresh, either. Two sex scandals? A gold-digging blonde looking to be tomrrow's headlines? Yawn. There's gotta be something more insidious and interesting to explore here than standard-issue philandering. Although McCormick has a line about it ("Two weeks ago, the only thing that could've sank my campaign is being caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy"), the movie doesn't even have the imagination to make one of these cheating scandals a gay love affair. At least that'd feel like an attempt to be topical and different.
Worse, Guttentag can't figure out who's side he's on. Knife Fight tries to be unique by refusing to commit to cynicism or idealism, but it just muddies the waters, making Paul seem like a person who is swayed by the prevailing winds. His solution for saving Becker from his affair with a pretty young secretary (Amanda Crew) is to throw her under the bus, which ends up making Paul feel like a slimeball, yet it seems like we've just spent an hour enjoying how good Paul is at turning shit into Shinola without blinking an eye. His moments of kindness and honesty feel shoehorned in, separated from the callous Paul. Near the end, a revelation from Kerstin seems to be setting up an emotional collapse for Paul, but Paul isn't fazed at all, unintentionally suggesting he hasn't learned anything.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to make a film that's a little less bitter and cynical than the rest of today's crop of political entertainment, but Guttentag is unable to locate the right tone, and his inclusion of the dark stuff is unconvincing. His questions about how much is worth forgiving in order to accomplish bigger, better change are nothing new (addressed with more nuance and wit in Mike Nichols' Primary Colors 15 years ago). The title comes from Paul's line to Penelope when she first expresses her desire to run for governor: "In order to win, you've gotta be the person who's willing to bring a gun to a knife fight." Too bad it feels like Knife Fight waited until both sides were using guns, and tried to tip-toe across the battlefield without any weapons at all.
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