A film review by Craig J. Koban April 19, 2022

ALL THE OLD KNIVES jjj
 

2022, R, 102 mins.

Chris Pine as Henry Pelham  /  Thandiwe Newton as Celia Harrison  /  Jonathan Pryce as Bill Compton  /  Laurence Fishburne as Vick Wallinger  /  Corey Johnson as Karl Stein  /  Jonjo O'Neill as Ernst Pul

Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen  /  Written by Olen Steinhauer, based on his novel 
 

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

Sometimes one of the best pieces of movie magic is to simply plant the camera on two limitlessly attractive lead actors with great chemistry and set in an equally opulent setting.

And Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton are indeed two incredibly photogenic performers. They appear early on in the new Amazon spy thriller ALL THE OLD KNIVES seated opposite of one another in a posh restaurant that overlooks magic hour lit Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.  They both were CIA agents back in the day and madly in love, that is until deranged terrorists attacked a plane in Vienna and killed everyone on board.  Mysteriously, the woman exited the man's life in the immediate aftermath of this tragic event, with them reconnecting for the first time in over eight years at the restaurant.   

Oh...and both of them have deeply rooted suspicions in the other for having ties to the terrorist attack.   

So much for a romantic get-together. 

ALL THE OLD KNIVES is an adaptation of the 2015 Olen Steinhauer novel of the same name (he adapts the screenplay here as well), and right from the get-go this Janus Metz Pedersen (BORG VS MCENROE) directed affair is refreshingly more of a slow-burn, character driven, and patient espionage thriller that's not really concerned at all with the more basic and frequently overused elements of the genre (like, say, the larger than life comic book inspired action of the James Bond series).  ALL THE OLD KNIVES operates in a more low key and understated manner in terms of being a more cerebral experience, teasing an intoxicating cat and mouse game of wits between the aforementioned lovers to see which one will crack in front of the other first.  Pedersen's film is perhaps a drama first and an intense thriller second, but I admired its relative stylistic restraint in being a spy film that's more pared down and adult audience oriented.  To be fair, that approach does affect the film's overall forward moving momentum (it often feels longer than its running time reflects), not to mention that some of the creative choices here are a mixed and ineffective bag.  But I appreciated how ALL THE OLD KNIVES is more John le Carre than Ian Fleming (not that there's anything wrong with the latter, mind you, but change is good for the soul).   

 

 

Again, the whole arc of the film is cleverly intriguing in the way it shows the ever escalating mistrust that two former spy lovers share that were once wrapped up in a joyous relationship while doing everything to defend their country.  The film begins in a flashback to 2012, during which time we learn of that Vienna based plane being hijacked by suicidal terrorists.  The CIA station there is called upon to look for a solution to this dire situation, led by Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) overseeing his team, which, yes, includes the lovers (soon to be ex-lovers) in Henry (Pine) and Celia (Newton), as well as their colleague in Bill (Jonathan Pryce).  They're tasked with using every lead and connection at their disposal to end this hijacking and bring it to a peaceful close, but unfortunately for all they fail, leading to all of the 120 people on board (including the terrorists) dying.  Very quickly afterwards, Celia broke things off with Henry and abruptly left him.  They both went their separate ways, never speaking to each other for years.  Celia went on to marry another man and have a family, whereas Henry remained single and had difficulty processing his separation anxiety. 

We then flash forward to 2020 and Wallinger has reached out to Henry to inform him that new information has been brought to light in the form of a mole within their own CIA office having direct ties to the terrorist incident.  He wants Henry to seek out and interrogate other members of the office one by one, which is made all the more pressing when one of them mysteriously committed suicide post-terrorist attack.  Of course, Wallinger even wants Henry to come face to face with his former flame and partner in Celia, so a staged meet-and-greet between the pair is established by CIA brass that outwardly looks cordial, but inwardly is all a ruse to see whether or not Henry can get Celia to confess any potential involvement.  Of course, complicating everything is the shared history between the pair, not to mention that the ethereal spark that they believed left them eight years previously still seems to be there.  As their conversation matures into reflections of their time spent in Vienna it slowly segues into mind games of oneupmanship to see if one of these souls is in fact a back stabbing mole. 

On paper, ALL THE OLD KNIVES is both (a) a tale of lost love that's doomed for ultimate failure and (b) a spy procedural that's concerned with picking up all of the loose pieces of the larger puzzle of that terrorist tragedy that cost so many lives.  It's one thing for Henry to make attempts to aggressively extract the truth from his targets, but it's a whole other matter to do so with a woman that he was once intimate with.  That latter aspect is what makes watching ALL THE OLD KNIVES engaging, and a lot more so than the standard nuts and bolts of the CIA investigation that feels like it has been appropriated from other and better past globetrotting spy thrillers.  And like most mysteries, the film calls upon the viewer to make sense of it all and deduce the identity of the real culprit alongside Henry's investigation.  The absolute failure of the CIA to stop the terrorists is ripe with interest, but ALL THE REAL KNIVES lives and breathes in the quieter moments between Henry and Celia in that impossibly sumptuous Californian seaside restaurant.  There's also the added and perhaps more tantalizing mystery within the larger mystery of just why Celia dumped Henry all those years ago after the attack.  Is she really a mole that worked with the enemy?  Or, is it Jonathan Pryce's fidgety statesmen that seems uneasy when Henry presses him?  Or, is it someone else entirely that Henry can't quite finger...hmmmmmm? 

I like what the Danish born Pedersen brings to the table here, bringing an artful look and flavor to this espionage tale.  He also wisely lets Pine and Newton do most of the heavy lifting, and both do a solid job of making their on-screen chemistry and their characters long and problematic history with one another feel immediately palpable throughout.  I appreciated the age reversing casting here too, seeing as we have had so many thrillers and action pictures over the years where the older male lead takes on a much younger female love interest (Pine is nearly a decade younger than Newton in real life).  Regardless of age gap (and as alluded to earlier), the camera simply loves these two stars, and on top of their ample physical appeal both Pine and Newton have to play vulnerable, but determined characters that simultaneously have to process their past lives together as well as digging up a well spring of old wounds in the process.  And as the story progresses it becomes clear that both are hiding their own unique secrets and struggle to keep their mutual guards up.  Newton has always been a headstrong actress and she's super in her tricky role, but I also relished at seeing Pine break away from his more high profile blockbuster roles (like in WONDER WOMAN and the STAR TREK reboots) to sink his teeth into meatier and more psychologically complex parts; he's quite stalwart here. 

Unfortunately, once the mystery has been solved and the elusive mole is revealed it seems oddly anti-climatic and lacking in any type of shocking potency (also, if one starts to modestly pick away at the assembled suspects the final reveal is pretty easy to spot early on).  Also, the overall construction of the plot hinges on flashbacks and flashforwards; sometimes the film flips back and forth seamlessly, but more often than not it's so haphazardly done that it works against the more suspenseful aspects of Henry and Celia's rendezvous with fate.  There's something to be said about losing oneself within the labyrinthine nature of a convoluted spy thriller, but the messy non-linear approach in ALL THE OLD KNIVES seems too hodgepodge for its own good and it distractingly takes us away from the scenes between Pine and Newton that work so marvelously.  Still, the film is to be respected and seen as a mostly effective piece of counter-programming against more mainstream spy genre pieces, and the cinema world definitely needs more adult films for adults that don't cater to mass cineplex crowd pleasures.  

That, and Pine and Newton are really easy to look at here. 

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