“We need to close the books on Flight 127 once and for all.” The tension in Janus Metz Pedersen’s slow burn espionage thriller All The Old Knives ostensibly comes from this resolution to a politically motivated hijacking of a civilian flight that turned lethal, possibly due to a mole inside the Vienna-based U.S. agency tasked with its resolution. Eight years later spook Henry (Chris Pine) must meet up with ex-spy and ex-lover Celia (Thandiwe Newton) to suss out whether or not she was the leak.
If this sounds like John le Carré lite, that’s because it is. Based on a novel by Olen Steinhauer, the film unfolds in Vienna, London, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, cutting haphazardly between present day, two weeks ago, and eight years ago. Pedersen and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen delineate these timelines by washing the past in dreary blues and the present in an equally depressing beige-orange light.
When we first meet Pine’s Henry, he’s young with a wisp of roguish wavy hair channeling Brad Pitt in Spy Game, which he later trades in for distinguished slicked back gray and peacoat and chunky turtleneck, trying his best to look like Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Pine does his best to sell this warmed-over story done better countless times before, but mostly feels stranded in an overly convoluted story more interested in its many twists and turns than the humans at its center.
Before his ill-fated stint in Vienna, Henry spent time in Russia, working with a Chechen informant named Ilyas (Orli Shuka) who later becomes radicalized after Henry’s bosses feed him to the Russians to prevent an attack on an American embassy. This supposedly shook Henry to his core, yet he kept working for the agency for at least a decade after the incident. The choppy timeline doesn’t allow a long enough focus on Henry for Pine to really explore the character’s complex loyalties and internal conflicts.
He is, however, still played as the romantic hero at the core of the story. The plane’s hijackers are described as Chechen, Somali, and Saudi, and despite the empathetic backstory given to Ilyas before his radicalization, the film still trades in stereotypes of MENA people as Islamic extremist terrorists. Even worse, this supposedly complex look at the geopolitical landscape that caused their radicalization takes a backseat to Henry and Celia’s love story.
But even Newton’s Celia (who, in the past, is stuck in one of the worst shag wigs in recent cinematic memory) is underdeveloped. The backstory for why she joined the agency (dead parents) and her post-spy life are both clichés. Eight years after abruptly leaving the agency – and Henry – she already fell in love with someone else and had two kids? The tension here relies on this cookie-cutter life ending if indeed she is the mole, but we don’t see her with her family. We don’t know enough about them to form an emotional investment.
Structurally, All The Old Knives again lifts from the aforementioned Spy Game, Tony Scott’s ace Cold War thriller starring Pitt and Robert Redford. Equally convoluted in its structure, Redford spends much of that film in one room feeding the audience exposition as the action cuts to Pitt in the past falling in love and doing his spy thing. In Pedersen’s film, we’re stuck with Celia spouting exposition to Henry over the longest dinner, with the action cutting between Vienna and London. These flashbacks include a wasted Jonathan Pryce, who swears a bit while conjuring red herrings, and Laurence Fisburne in a thankless role as Pine’s boss; he disappears for such a long stretch that when he comes back towards the end, I had forgotten he was even in the film.
“I thought you were here to see if we had that old spark,” Claire tells Henry once she realizes he’s there on business, not pleasure. Unfortunately, Newton and Pine have no chemistry – and even if they did, Pedersen doesn’t spend enough time with them to allow any sort of spark to ignite. The dinner scene itself has no eroticism whatsoever. For a film that steals from so many others, it would have been great to see a little fire here, a la The Thomas Crown Affair chess scene. Instead, these scenes plod ahead with static energy and some really weird shot choices, including a real headscracter of an extreme close-up of their eyes in profile.
Even the one sex scene is more nauseating than sexy. The actors go through the motions of sexual intercourse, but without any passion; the scene is chopped up by more cuts than your average action flick. It checks all the boxes of a sex scene, but has less erotic energy than super hot chase scene between Newton and Tom Cruise in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 twenty years earlier.
All The Old Knives suffers from too many stolen ideas poorly executed. Lack of trust in the star power of its two leads snuffs out any chemistry they may have had, defusing the love story at its heart, while its shoddy attempt at exploring the geopolitical landscape that turns people to radicalization is ultimately shallow and continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. A total misfire on all fronts.
“All the Old Knives” is in theaters and on Amazon Prime Friday.