Review: All the Old Knives Gives Chris Pine a Perfectly Serviceable CIA Thriller

From his old-school military-style actioner last week with The Contractor, to this week’s old-school political whodunit in All the Old Knives, Chris Pine is building up a mildly enjoyable filmography of B-movie titles in which he gets to work in his movie-star charm while also bringing in some fun costars to work with. He’ll be swimming in that Liam Neeson school of making movies any day now.

In this film, he plays veteran CIA operative Henry Pelham, who was part of a team years earlier that was assigned to stop terrorists who had hijacked a plane in Austria from killing their hostages. They failed in their assignment, and this failure haunts all of the players many years later. In the present day, Pelham’s commanding officer (Laurence Fishburne) charges him with reopening the investigation into what went wrong when it is believed that someone on the team was feeding the terrorists information on what the CIA’s plan was to get into the plane and save the hostages. The CIA has narrowed it down to two people: top analyst Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and his direct underling Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who also happened to be in a relationship with Pelham at the time. The incident drove her and others out of the agency due to their sense of failure, and it also made her leave the relationship just after the couple agreed to move in together.

All the Old Knives is structured like a time puzzle, featuring a present day dinner meeting with Celia, who now lives in California and is married with kids; flashbacks to the incident in question; and Pelham’s interview with Compton two weeks earlier in London, really putting the screw on him thanks to a phone record that shows a call to one of the terrorists from Compton’s office. It comes as no surprise that Pelham doesn’t believe or want to believe that his old flame is the mole, but the screenplay by Olen Steinhauer (based on his book) sure wants us to think she’s got something to hide. As the film moves on, the story’s threads involving Pelham and Celia come together in interesting, if not entirely unpredictable, ways, regarding both their personal and professional lives together. Danish director Janus Metz (Borg vs. McEnroe) keeps things moving, manages the potentially confusing structure with a skill that makes it fairly easy to follow, and gives Newton a chance to really give a performance that is better than it’s written. If Celia is the mole, the film gives her a compelling reason why she might be and an even better examination of the trauma she suffered after the hijacking went so very wrong, even if it was her fault.

Pine is a little stiff as Pelham (the only member of the team to have been cleared of being the mole), although it’s clear he still has feelings for Celia, even if he ultimately has to order that she be killed by an assassin who is lingering around the restaurant where they are meeting. All the Old Knives is probably a little too overstuffed for its own good, but the actors are so interesting, you can almost forgive it. It’s better than having all that talent be underwhelming, I suppose. The film is easy to watch, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and has a fairly satisfying conclusion, so it’s certainly worth checking out at home, if not in a theatrical setting. I suppose it depends on how large you like Chris Pine’s face.

The film now playing theatrically at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and streaming on Prime Video.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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