Face it, chess really isn't a sexy game. Trust me on this. To build a feature film around a fictionalized world chess championship match would seem to be a disastrous enterprise, something reminiscent of those Andy Warhol movies where you're expected to thrill for hours on end to the sight of, say, wet paint drying on a wall. What makes DANGEROUS MOVES so impressive is that overcomes these built-in obstacles quite handily. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is a very watchable, well-crafted effort.Actually, my earlier assessment about chess is a mite unfair. When played on the world-championship level, the game sometimes reaches rareified heights of psychodrama, partly because top-ranked chess players can be a rather strange bunch. Consider the infamous 1972 Fischer-Spassky match, when a paranoid Bobby Fischer nearly set off World War III by accusing the Soviets of various attempts to sabotage the games; this soon led to the intervention of Henry Kissinger, in one of his wiser foreign-policy manuevers.
DANGEROUS MOVES seems to have been loosely based on the only slightly less bizarre Karpov-Korchnoi championship match of '78. There is a scene in this film where one of the players begins raving that his opponent has planted a psychic on the crowd to interfere with the game. That, believe it or not, actually happened.
But you don't need to know any of that to appreciate DANGEROUS MOVES, a sleek and tightly scripted affair; it moves with the pleasing speed of a film with little excess fat. Set during the Iron Curtain era, the story pits a young, cocky eastern European defector (Michel Piccoli) against the reigning world champ, an aging Soviet warhorse with a bad heart (Alexandre Arbatt). As the match progresses, the behind-the-scenes intrigues heat up, and it becomes clear that each man is simply a pawn in a much larger political battle.
The film's point is not terribly subtle; like many well-made movies, you notice that the pieces fit together too smoothly, even as you admire the craftsmanship. And yet director Richard Dembo does a decent job of infusing the proceedings with dramatic tension; even the chess games themselves are "choreographed" quite well. You know what's going on--who's winning and who's losing--even if you don't understand the arrangement of the pieces on the board. (But he makes a small yet important misstep by failing to explain fully the rules of the match: Is this a best-of-X-games affair? First man to win X games? It's not clear.)This film is considered among the lesser of the Oscar winners in the Best Foreign Film category, which probably isn't fair. It's better than this year's winner, THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS, as well as some others in the not-so-distant past.