The all-star murder-mystery movie is making a comeback. Back in 2017, Kenneth Branagh revived the whodunnit with his take on Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. His moustachioed Hercule Poirot will return again next year for Death on the Nile, but in the meantime we have Rian Johnson's Knives Out – a delicious, contemporary spin on the genre Christie practically invented.
Johnson is a director capable of freshening up familiar tropes. He did it with the film noir in his debut, Brick, relocating it to a high school. Ditto The Brothers Bloom, his con artist yarn. In his breakout movie Looper, he brought us a unique spin on the time travel tale. And then with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he delivered a divisive love-it-or-hate-it episode of the world's most famous sci-fi saga.
Yet with Knives Out, Johnson does something else again. He delivers a murder mystery that has the requisite cunning plot and an A-list cast – one that includes James Bond and Captain America, no less. But this is no goofy homage to Christie, aside from its location in one of her favourite settings, the sprawling country house – in this case in Massachusetts. It's not a parody either, but a whip-smart tale of avarice, ego and entitlement.
The story begins on the night of the 85th birthday of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a worldrenowned mystery writer and publishing executive. The next morning he is found dead, with his throat cut. The cops label it suicide, but that's only the start of a fiendish, flashback-driven story as we learn about Harlan's greedy extended family, many of whom, naturally, have motives for bumping him off.
To reveal too much more would spoil the fun of Johnson's ingenious plotting, but suffice it to say, he goes down the Columbo route, echoing Peter Falk's well-trodden path and keeping the audience up to speed. Half the fun of Knives Out – and it is a lot of fun, more so that any of Johnson's previous films – is watching these characters bicker and fight amid a serious crime investigation.
Among the cast, Jamie Lee Curtis is Harlan's eldest daughter, property developer Linda – married to Don Johnson's lech Richard and mother to the black sheep of the family, spoilt brat Ransom (Chris Evans). Michael Shannon plays Harlan's hapless younger son Walt, about to get kicked out of running his father's company, Blood Like Wine – a publisher of such books as Around the Corner and Down the Lane and This Little Piggy.
Then there's Joni (Toni Collette), Harlan's daughter-in-law and widow of his third son, Neil, who was a lifestyle guru, Instagram poser and mother to Meg (Katherine Langford), a social activist and liberal arts student. Equally intriguing is Walt's son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), a right-wing Trump fan who spends all his time on his smartphone, trolling people online.
All of these and more are put under the microscope by world-famous Louisiana detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who arrives to assist the police with their enquiries and ends up enlisting Harlan's caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas), a woman so pure she vomits every time she comes close to telling a lie. Impressively, Johnson deftly weaves these dozen or so characters into a compelling, fast-paced tapestry.
While the cinematic Christie mystery became popular in the Seventies and early 1980s, when Peter Ustinov took the role of Poirot, Johnson's references lean more towards films such as Sleuth, the 1972 adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's play, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Also influential is Herbert Ross's The Last of Sheila, in which James Coburn gathers the same guests who were at his house a year earlier when his wife died in a hit-and-run. Yet what works best with Knives Out is how it's been updated for the modern age.
A murder mystery for Donald Trump's America? Well, that's one way of looking at it, as Johnson banishes the dusty archetypes – the Colonel, the Vicar and the Princess – that one might associate with Agatha Christie and replaces them with figures from our own era, in particular, Marta, a Latina immigrant fighting for survival in an inhospitable land.
As a result, the cast have a ball – particularly Craig, who hams it up with a molasses-thick Southern accent, and Avengers star Evans, who brilliantly plays against his clean-cut, square-jawed Captain America image. There's also some cracking work from production designer David Crank, particularly with the film's central image – a throne-like chair with a fan-like display of knives that the camera can't help but focus on.
With Johnson ensuring the film never, ever takes itself too seriously, Knives Out is thoroughly watchable entertainment that never lets the social commentary overpower the fun. More a howdunnit than a whodunnit, it'll have you scratching your head and trying to second-guess actions right up until the end. This is one mystery you won't want to miss.
Knives Out is in UAE cinemas from Thursday