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Unlike The Contractor, the other Chris Pine espionage thriller released this month, All the Old Knives does not rely on action and chases for its suspense. In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Olen Steinhauer takes inspiration from John le Carré, not Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy. This kind of spycraft involves the careful development of intelligence through embedded sources, a relationship that is tense because nurtured trust can always be betrayed. Steinhauer and director Janus Metz include an impressive number of twists, a difficult feat since the film has few characters and amounts to little more than a tense dinner conversation punctuated by flashbacks. Sadly, each new wrinkle cannot add to a cohesive whole because the film’s emotional undercurrent—a bittersweet love story—does not have the same attention to detail.
The romance involves Henry Pelham (Pine) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), former colleagues and lovers who worked together for the CIA in Vienna. In the present, Celia has left the agency and started a family in California; Henry meets her at a restaurant near her home. At first, they reminisce about old times, then Henry reveals the true reason behind the visit: He’s recently discovered that someone from their team gave inside information to terrorists during a deadly plane hijacking that cost the lives of everyone on board. The details of the hijacking are almost incidental to Henry’s investigation—he wants to know who knew what detail and when. Henry, cleared of wrongdoing by his boss, Vick (Laurence Fishburne), marks Celia as his primary suspect. Though it’s been years since they last spoke, their feelings for each other complicate their uneasy reunion.
In between constant flashbacks and multiple versions of the same events, All the Old Knives can be difficult to follow. Steinhauer and Metz use overlaying voice-over to guide us through the dense plot, as well as simple visual cues (during his time in Vienna, for example, Pine sports a questionable haircut). He and Newton lack the chemistry their roles require, to the point that a sex scene between them unfolds with a bizarre absence of passion. The scenes at the restaurant do not fare much better. Henry and Celia should be sizing each other up, provoking and prodding to better understand who is lying, but the duo’s delivery remains curiously flat. Their exchanges are tepid, not icy, as if Metz overcorrected in his effort to obscure the secrets they are hiding.
The more compelling moments involve the particulars of their jobs in Vienna, and not just because these scenes keep Pine apart from Newton. What does it take to “turn” a source? Once that relationship is built, how is it maintained? As the hijacking unfolds in real time, Henry turns to his contacts in Vienna for any information or details they might have. Back at the office, Celia, Vick, and others argue about how to handle their man on board the plane—a fellow CIA officer who ends up a hostage through sheer coincidence. There are only bad options, and the film’s best scenes involve the characters gaming out how to minimize casualties.
It is impossible to know whether this depiction of espionage is accurate—at least, it’s impossible for civilians like us—but Steinhauer includes enough plausibility and jargon to give the suggestion of credibility. Fancy cars and gadgets are nowhere to be found, just dogged professionals who do the best with what limited information they are given. Metz ramps up this tension by tightening in on the faces of his actors. There are many, many close-ups in All the Old Knives, particularly during the final conversations between Henry and Celia, a technique that ultimately diminishes the suspense the filmmakers hope to achieve.
The subtext between Henry and Celia’s reunion is that, no matter how the conversation ends, only one of them is leaving the restaurant alive. A better film would rely on insinuation and double meaning to get that point across, and instead Metz includes bizarre asides where we see the deadly preparations for the tête-à-tête between the two leads. All the Old Knives has an unambiguous ending, one that attempts irony to suggest that victories in the clandestine services rarely feel that way to the participants. It is an easy idea to understand because the intricate, dense story has a tidy resolution. Many spy thrillers can do that, while only the good ones conjure accompanying feelings, ensuring that each betrayal hurts the audience and viewer. In this case, you might say these old knives are too dull.
All the Old Knives opens in theaters and on Amazon Prime on April 8.