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Knox Goes Away But Keaton Is Still Here!

Quick: What popular actor has played a fast-food mogul, a U.S. President, a demented ghost, a DC superhero, a Marvel villain, a stay-at-home dad, a serial killer, a talking snowman, a Shakespearean fool, a recovering addict, a washed-up actor, an animated car, a man who’s been cloned three times — and a hitman with rapid-onset dementia?

I’m sure most film-fans were able to name Michael Keaton. But if that last role doesn’t ring a bell — well, this is a brand-new movie that most folks haven’t seen or even heard of.

Perhaps this glowing review can help remedy that cinematic oversight.

Released late last year and now available for streaming, Knox Goes Away features an usually strong performance from the Pennsylvania native; and Keaton also directed it — only his second such effort in a filmography covering nearly 60 titles.

The veteran actor plays John Knox, an aging hitman who is diagnosed with the rare but nasty Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. That’s a degenerative brain malady involving many problems — among them memory loss, visual disturbances and, in most cases, death within a year.

Just as Knox begins wrestling with these issues, he botches one last job. And then — while fending off a police investigation of that triple murder — Knox’s estranged son, whom he hasn’t seen in years, arrives bathed in blood and asks for help covering up a murder.

It seems young Miles Knox had rashly — but somewhat understandably — butchered an older perv who raped his teenage daughter.

So yeah — that’s quite a plot hook; and lesser-known screenwriter Gregory Poirier handles it beautifully. As Knox works to undo the double-mess — and perhaps heal relations with Miles, as well as his own ex-wife (Marcia Gay Harden) — we can’t be sure if he’s being super-clever, or just scatterbrained and forgetful. Yet Poirier never overdoes the twists and turns: Nimble-witted viewers can follow well enough — if they pay attention and hang on tight.

Besides the script, Knox also offers terrific acting in every role. Keaton is a national treasure, and this is some of his best work. It’s subtle and soulful, especially in the final scenes; viewers will have no trouble caring for the killer, despite his troubled past.

(And incidentally: How is it possible that Keaton does not yet have an Academy Award? Oh, well; the great Donald Sutherland, who passed away in June after more than 100 roles, never even got a competitive nomination. But that’s another near-future column in Webb.)

Though I love Keaton and still feel he’s underappreciated despite such an impressive career — nonetheless, he is actually eclipsed here by James Marsden as Miles. I don’t know this actor well, but it’s a performance of bracing rawness, depth and conviction. The likewise unappreciated Ray McKinnon is similarly strong playing Knox’s partner-in-crime, with Al Pacino chiming in as the hitman’s world-weary boss.

For the record, there’s a bit of a “mail-it-in” feel to Pacino’s work here; but the guy is so magnetic that we’re still thrilled to get hold of that envelope and tear it open.

Performances are greatly aided by Poirier’s delicious dialog — like Knox declaring, “I’m what the scientific journals refer to as a lousy father.”

And then, upon learning of his granddaughter’s mistreatment, Knox quips, “Did you bury this guy? Cuz if you did, I was gonna dig him up and kill him again.”

And after his diagnosis: “Actually, I’m looking forward to forgetting some things.”

I’m sure all of us likewise have things we’d rather not recall; but this movie won’t be one of them.

For Keaton fans, it’s a must.