‘Knives Out’ is a wickedly fun game of cinematic chess

There’s nothing quite like family envy and greed.

It’s like placing iron inside a pressure cooker and slowly turning up the heat over the course of a day.

Rian Johnson, who crafted such multi-faceted cinematic delights such as “Brick” and “Looper” before jumping on the “Star Wars” bus two years ago, returns with “Knives Out,” a deliciously entertaining live action version of the classic board game, Clue.

You have a rich patriarch, best selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who suddenly dies one night after his birthday party. When the authorities (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) come out to question the besieged family members, things start to get toxic very quickly.

Jamie Lee Curtis’ Linda is self-made like her dad, Harlan, but she can’t be trusted completely. Her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), has done a few wrong things lately. The trust fun grandson (Chris Evans) may have been cut out of the will. Walt (Michael Shannon), who ran Harlan’s publishing company, may have been let go. Joni (Toni Collette) isn’t really part of the family anymore, but she hangs around anyway.

And then there’s the lovely nurse/help, Marta (Ana de Armas), who formed a bond with Harlan, yet has her own motives and needs.

Oh, and everyone pretty much hates each other secretly, or in some cases, openly. Everyone has a grudge, and it’s not the authorities they must worry about. In this case, the revered private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), has on hand to triple-check everyone’s alibi and sniff out the killer. And he’s good at his job. Very good.

That’s the setup and I will give no more, because doing so spoils all the surprises that take place over the course of this two hour-plus mystery delight. This is Johnson, who wrote the script as well, at his best. He carves out dual-sided personalities, puts them into a hot box, turns up the heat, and asks us to pick out the bad apple. Only in this family, stuck in a creepy haunted house-type mansion, there’s a few bad apples.

The best movie mysteries are the ones who don’t pull a fast one on the audience, and “Knives Out” doesn’t mess around in the end. Right when you think it’s going one direction, the car yanks itself around, flying off in a new direction. You’ll have it nailed down, and forget to see the rug underneath your feet getting pulled. Johnson is the magician here, and has crafted a delight for the entire family. The PG-13 rating is fitting. There’s little blood, language, and all entertaining chaos. If you think your family is bad, check the Thrombeys out and be at ease.

Harlan’s gift was writing the greatest mystery “whodunit” stories of all time. It’s only fitting that he leads his unforgivable family on one last wild goose chase before he passes on completely. Do you remember Jonathan Lynn’s 1994 comedy, “Greedy.” It starred Michael J. Fox, Kirk Douglas, and the late Phil Hartman. A family scrambling to inherit their patriarch’s massive fortune (Douglas) after he dies. Well, add a murder mystery, a better script, better actors, and you have it.

There’s genuine non-slapstick humor to be found here. There’s a funny bit about lying making someone puke and a hilarious bit from Craig about “the donut hole of a case.”

Out of the stellar cast, Craig and Evans fare the best. Working a quirky accent that suggests Sherlock Holmes with an even bigger ego and some stammering, Craig is a hoot as Blanc. Smoking cigars and smiling mischievously, he bleeds out every ounce of probable cause in the family, but runs into his match with Armas’ Marta, a seemingly innocent woman who may be hiding something sinister. It is roles like this one and his wildly cooky explosives expert in Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” that remind you before he played James Bond, Craig was a respected actor.

Evans, fresh off retiring the Captain America shield, gets to level down a bit here, playing someone who is not so cut and dry. Enabled by Harlan for the better part of his life, Evans’ Ransom is the overgrown child in the group, hating all and wanting his fair share. But did he grow a conscience all of a sudden? There’s something great about a movie star known by millions going the other way. Evans has a bright future after Marvel.

The rest of the cast does their thing, filling in the white lies while lying a trace of menace in their wake. Johnson did a fine job in assembling actors that we know, trust, and possibly acquit or charge too early. It’s a maze that doesn’t lose any steam as the conclusion is reached.

I do think Johnson’s movie isn’t as smart as it aspires to be, and the direction trails the writing here when it comes to execution, but that doesn’t take away from the good times to be had. If you are expecting a mind-blowing ending, you’ll be let down. Johnson didn’t just want to craft an ordinary mystery here. He’s getting at something, and if you understand it in the end, the movie becomes so much better.

The last shot of the film is flawless, hilarious, and informs you what “Knives Out” was all about.

Everyone loves a good mystery. A classic whodunit! Add some family dysfunction to the dish, and it gets even better.

“Knives Out” isn’t perfect, but it’ll happily soak up two hours of your time after a holiday dinner.

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