‘Knives Out’ review: Old-fashioned crowd pleaser with star-studded cast

By Rafer Guzmán Newsday (TNS)

Good news for connoisseurs of 1970s cinema: Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” has arrived. Quentin Tarantino may have cornered the market on the decade’s more disreputable fare, but Johnson takes inspiration from a less fashionable genre: the glossy, hokey, Hollywood whodunit. Surprisingly, “Knives Out” isn’t a spoof but an almost straight-faced homage, with the requisite twisty-turny plot and star-studded cast. It’s even timed for a pre-Thanksgiving release, just as “Murder on the Orient Express” was in 1974.

That and numerous other Agatha Christie adaptations, along with semi-forgotten gems like “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” echo throughout Johnson’s winking but never mocking pastiche. It starts with the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery novelist — very meta — who leaves behind a vast fortune. Expectant family members gather at his mansion, only to find themselves grilled by two lawmen (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a colorful private eye named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

Cue our introduction to the main characters, using slow zoom-ins to catch the lies in their eyes. To name just the most entertaining few, they are Toni Collette as Joni, a pampered New Ager; Michael Shannon as Walt, who runs dad’s publishing business; and Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, a gimlet-eyed observer who nevertheless married an obvious cad, Richard (an excellent Don Johnson). Chris Evans plays the absurdly named Ransom, a playboy with refreshingly open hostility for his relatives, while Ana de Armas plays Marta, the late writer’s beloved housekeeper. In one of the movie’s sillier conceits, Marta is so good-hearted that lying makes her literally vomit.

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Having the most fun are Craig and Evans, both eager to shed their ID’s as James Bond and Captain America, respectively. Craig really goes all-out, adopting a Deep South drawl and spouting swampy profundities about truth and human nature. He even gets a Joe-Pesci-in-”JFK” moment when he compares the Thrombey case to a donut inside another donut.

For offbeat dialogue and clever camerawork, writer-director Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) still hasn’t bested his little-seen gem “The Brothers Bloom” (2008). At heart, “Knives Out” is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. Aside from a few moments of Trump-era politics and the appearance of a vape-pen, the movie is essentially timeless — a smart and classy piece of holiday-season entertainment.

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‘KNIVES OUT’

Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon

Rated PG-13 (bloody images and mild violence)

Running time: 2:11

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