“It’s good at establishing ambience and assembling a careful tension, but when it comes to showing us the reveals that it’s been building towards, it stumbles.”
by Ken Bakely
When a movie like Janus Metz Pedersen’s All the Old Knives comes out, many critics react with a certain wistfulness: not long ago, before the current era of IP-all-the-way-down, robust, medium-scale thrillers made specifically for adults were in flourishing supply at your local multiplex. There’s a degree of rose-tinted nostalgia for some of them now: few of these movies were great, but on the other hand, that somehow made them feel all the more institutional in their value. This is a film that feels squarely in that tradition. It follows Henry (Chris Pine), a CIA agent who meets Celia (Thandiwe Newton), a former colleague and ex who left both their relationship and the intelligence game after a botched mission eight years ago, when their unit was unable to stop a band of terrorists from carrying out a suicide mission that killed everyone aboard a commercial flight. The circumstances surrounding the event have been suspicious ever since – many within the agency suspect that one of their own was double-crossing them and aiding the terrorists. Now, nearly a decade later, Henry and Celia reunite for dinner at a restaurant near Celia’s home in California – as far away as she could get from her old job, she explains to him – as they work through the rippling aftermath of the event which so profoundly affected their personal and professional lives together.
All the Old Knives is essentially presented as a continuous rhythm of flashbacks and present-day sequences, intertwined with varying levels of precision. What becomes clear relatively early on, and increasingly obvious as time goes by, is that one of these stories is a lot more engaging and intriguing than the other, and it’s not the one about the terrorist attack, which eventually lumbers under the weight of numerous hackneyed twists and turns toward a rather unceremonious ending. The film particularly comes alive when it lets Newton and Pine explore their characters and the minutiae of their dynamic, with the myriad of baggage that passes through every shared word and memory. Their surroundings are striking: they sit at a table in the center of a sparse, high-end restaurant, with big, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the coastline as dusk slowly falls, mirroring the flagging spirits of their exchange as the tone of their conversation – and the movie – shifts to the heart of the business at hand. They both have things to conceal and things they need to communicate; the two stars do a lot with this interplay, but they could presumably be even better if the script or the plotting was just a little bit more interested in continuing along these lines, and letting them lead with a bit more autonomy.
This sets up a particular chasm that All the Old Knives can never quite bridge: it’s good at establishing ambience and assembling a careful tension, but when it comes to showing us the reveals that it’s been building towards, it stumbles. Unlike many movies of this ilk, the problem is less that viewers have long since guessed the twists, as much as the notion that they’re simply not as involving as the journey of getting there. So clear is the contrast that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the movie was based on a play, focused on the restaurant scenes, with the flashbacks as newly added augmentation, but even this isn’t the case: it’s based on a novel by Olen Steinhauer, who adapts his book for the screen here. The electricity and the immediacy of the film’s best moments are just missing for large chunks of the runtime – and those are the parts when the likes of Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne join as supporting players. The film operates with a smooth, economical efficiency that ensures it never gets totally stuck in the weeds, but it really lives or dies, moment-to-moment, on what its two main stars are bringing to the table, at times independent of what the material would suggest. In that sense, it truly does resemble those star-centric genre movies of yesteryear. We’re there for them. Swap them out for another pairing of even slightly less capable performers who have an iota less chemistry, and it would seem exponentially emptier. Its strengths would fade, and its shortcomings would be deadly.