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‘All the Old Knives’ should have been sharper

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There are few things as exciting to watch onscreen as a pairing that features legitimate chemistry. When you’ve got two actors whose connection generates real electricity, when you can feel the crackle in the air between them within the context of their interactions … it’s so compelling.

But what happens when that remarkable chemistry is dropped into a film featuring a so-so script and unexciting direction? Can that chemistry alter the fundamental formula?

Sadly, in the case of “All the Old Knives” – currently in theaters and available on Amazon Prime Video – the answer is no. Despite an absolutely dynamite lead pairing in Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, both of whom are outstanding, the film can’t seem to get out of its own way. With muddy multiple timelines and assorted convoluted plot dynamics, the spy thriller can’t come close to living up to the bar set by its leads.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s worth seeing. Pine and Newton alone are more than worth the cost of admission. Just don’t be surprised if you wind up feeling slightly disappointed, wondering what might have been.

In 2012, the Vienna station of the CIA becomes wrapped up in an airline hijacking. Despite the best efforts of the team working there, it ends in tragedy. Agents Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) – lovers as well as co-workers – are part of it. So too are analysts such as Leila Maloof (Ahd Kamel) and Owen Lassiter (David Dawson) and Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), all under the stewardship of station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne).

Eight years later, long after the investigation into the matter has closed, Wallinger brings Pelham in and tasks him with tracking down new information. Specifically, the agency has learned of claims that the failure to save the plane may have been due to the presence of a mole in the office. Wallinger wants Pelham to figure out the truth behind what happened, even if it requires him to reopen old wounds.

And so, Henry reaches out to Celia – who has long since left the agency and moved on to make a new life for herself – in hopes of talking to her about the events of eight years ago. She agrees, and so the pair wind up in a nearly-empty wine bar and reliving the past. We move back and forth between past and present as the two quickly realize that the spark between them never went away, even as they regard one another with suspicion and doubt.

We bounce between flashbacks and present day and watch as the situation grows ever murkier with each new revelation. The complexity of the circumstances gets deeper and deeper as we’re left questioning the motivations of everyone involved. Who was the mole? Was there a mole? And what will the consequences be should the truth ultimately be dragged into the light?

“All the Old Knives” simply can’t get out of its own way. The narrative is fractured by design, with the constant movement between past and present, but there’s an inescapable muddiness to it all that renders the movie both dull and difficult to follow for stretches. The paucity of succinct storytelling is such that not even excellent lead performances can make up the difference.

A good espionage thriller should offer compelling examples of spycraft and thrills. “All the Old Knives” rarely manages to muster up either, and even when it does, those moments are so fleeting as to be forgotten as they are left behind in the narrative morass.

I’m of the belief that juggling timelines is one of the more difficult tasks that a filmmaker can undertake. Some prove up to the task, but in this case, director Janus Metz can’t quite get it done. There’s a vague confusion to the proceedings – sometimes you’re unsure of where you are in time, others you’re unsure of why you should care – that undermines the good faith efforts of the performers. The script – adapted by Olen Steinhauer from his own novel – does no one any favors either. The end result is a feeling of wasted potential.

That feeling of wastefulness is accentuated by the fact that this is a good cast doing fine work across the board. Again, Pine and Newton are phenomenal screen partners. There is an ease of interaction that accentuates the intensity of their connection. They dig into one another in a way that you don’t often get to see onscreen, with both constantly maneuvering to determine what they should reveal – and when – as well as what should remain hidden. It’s a killer supporting crew as well. Fishburne and Pryce are veteran actors who have a gift for making their characters feel lived in even if they aren’t given much on the page; the rest of the ensemble holds up their end as well.

Unfortunately, their work is largely for naught, because they are left to operate in a less-than-fully-realized world. The motivations behind what we see remain constantly and frustratingly opaque, with little real justification for the things that they say and do. And without that justification, we as an audience are left wondering just why we should care about what we’re watching.

“All the Old Knives” is neither good enough nor bad enough to be really interesting. It has some things going for it – the performances chief among them – but its many cons undermine the pros. In the end, it’s a competently made film that is formulaic and, for stretches, rather dull. And while there are many sins for which a spy thriller can be easily forgiven, being dull is not one of them.

And when your spy thriller is called “All the Old Knives,” well … it should probably be sharper than this.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 11 April 2022 16:49

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