One-time child prodigy turned chess grandmaster Peter Sanderson (Christopher Lambert) is in the midst of a triumphant comeback after years spent mourning the death of his wife. As Peter prepares for an upcoming tournament against his arch rival, encouraged by his adorable young daughter Erica (Katherine Isabelle, future star of Ginger Snaps (2000) and American Mary (2012)) and blind mentor Jeremy (Ferdy Mayne, former star of The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)), he spends the night with his mistress, Debi Rutlege (Kehli O’Byrne). The next morning police discover Debi has been horrifically murdered with a cryptic message on the wall written in her blood. With no finger prints at the scene, investigating detectives Frank Sedman (Tom Skerritt) and Andy Wagner (Daniel Baldwin) quiz Peter as to his whereabouts but he strangely denies any relationship with the dead woman. Resourceful psychologist Kathy Sheppard (Diane Lane) is enlisted to decipher whether Peter is responsible for what prove to be a string of murders but grows romantically involved with the handsome chess genius. Then the killer contacts Peter, challenging him to assist the police in unravelling his twisted scheme, but is this real or are the cops being merely manipulated by the real culprit? Even Kathy is not so sure.
The Nineties were the era of glossy psycho-thrillers with improbable twists and more than a hint of kinkiness. At the time many critics claimed the trend sprang in response to the success of the “groundbreaking” Jagged Edge (1986) penned by Joe Eszterhas (see? He did write something decent, once). Scratch beneath the mainstream friendly surface however and the ardent cinephile may notice that with its outlandish plot laden with twists and turns, operatic visuals, eccentric characters and frequent overheated eroticism, Knight Moves is strongly akin to an American giallo. Which proves less of surprising when one considers this was a European co-production. Heck, the killer even wears a black coat and wields a straight razor. All the victims are glamorous young women, often in a state of undress, although the film surprisingly abstains from graphic bloodshed. Even the presence of Tom Skerritt seems apt given the actor appeared in a handful of Italian thrillers back in the Seventies.
Screenwriter Brad Mirman would work repeatedly with producer-star Christopher Lambert throughout the ensuing decade, continuing with Highlander III: The Sorcerer (1994), similarly outlandish serial killer thriller Resurrection (1999) and comedy-drama Gideon (1999) wherein Lambert played a mentally handicapped handyman at an old folks’ home opposite Charlton Heston. Beginning with the Gérard Depardieu thriller Crime Spree (2003), Mirman segued into directing but his chief claim to infamy is as screenwriter of Madonna’s much-maligned erotic (ha!) thriller Body of Evidence (1992). The ridiculous sado-erotic philosophy underlining that misfire finds its equivalent here in hokey, heavy-handed chess metaphors that the cast deliver with admirable conviction. Peter applies his chess-playing philosophy to his relationships in the wider world, keeping himself remote and somewhat calculating, essentially hiding behind the game. The oft-underrated Lambert plays ambiguous and evasive very well and spars winningly with then-spouse Diane Lane, who grounds improbable events with believable, earnest emotion.
Although the psycho-killer’s rants provoke the odd chuckle, unlike other, nastier, misogynistic examples of the genre, Knight Moves stays compelling and fun. Among the film’s strengths, each character shoulders bits of detective work and heroism but also takes their turn under the revolving spotlight of suspects in manner cherishable for its brazen cheek. Journalist turned filmmaker Carl Schenkel debuted with porn horror parody Dracula Blows His Cool (1979) but made his breakthrough with German thriller Abwärts (1984). Moving into the mainstream he made offbeat, interesting films like The Mighty Quinn (1988) starring Denzel Washington but took a career downturn with horror film Exquisite Tenderness (1995) a.k.a. The Surgeon and Tarzan and the Lost City (1998). Here however his fluid direction does a fine job shifting suspicion from one suspect to the next and keeps the action involving despite some credibility straining histrionics. While Mirman’s script treads a fine line between outrageously convoluted and genuine ingenuity, it continually raises the stakes and the revelation of the killer’s evil plan results in a suspenseful finale, despite the guilty party’s ridiculous lost little boy routine. Bonus points for the delightfully cheesy punchline.