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‘All the Old Knives’ Review: Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton Generate Heat in Cerebral Spy Thriller

Janus Metz's glossy spin on the Olen Steinhauer novel is part chamber drama, part old-school espionage actioner, and entirely the kind of thing we don't get enough of anymore.

ALL THE OLD KNIVES

“All the Old Knives”

Stefania Rosini/Amazon Studios

Years ago, Henry and Celia had it made. They were both rising stars in the CIA, with their blossoming romance filling the scant off-time they had from their respective gigs at the agency’s Vienna station. Things were good, and while working for a clandestine intelligence agency isn’t ever easy, Henry and Celia were well-matched both for their jobs and each other. Then: the hi-jacking.

In Janus Metz’s spy thriller “All the Old Knives” — the kind of old-school espionage drama that studios, sadly, don’t make these days — author Olen Steinhauer adapts his own novel into a stylish and cerebral outing for a decidedly adult audience. One part ticking-clock thriller, one part intense chamber drama, “All the Old Knives” cleverly combines two sub-genres into one satisfying outing, complete with some big ethical questions that linger long after the credits roll. Most edifying, though: The genuine heat that stars Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton generate as Henry and Celia, two intelligent adults who aren’t shy about their carnal desires. See! A real movie for grownups!

Flipping between both time and place to tell a single story with multiple twists, turns, and points of view, “All the Old Knives” follows Henry and Celia both during their time in Vienna eight years prior, and in the depths of a current-day meeting in Celia’s new home in California. Fans of think-y spy thrillers will get their fill from the Vienna timeline, while anyone looking for a true two-hander rooted in snappy conversation will jibe with the California-set dramatics. The material at hand is tricky, but Steinhauer manages to wrangle his own fiction into an original film that feels self-contained in a way that IP-mad Hollywood has seemingly forgot is possible.

But back to that hi-jacking. Things in Vienna are quiet enough, at least quiet enough for the fast-rising Celia and the more risk-taking Henry to strike up a clandestine affair outside the office. That relative peace is shattered when a Royal Jordanian flight is hi-jacked, ensnaring the CIA, its Vienna station, and Henry and Celia. The situation is high-pressure enough, and that’s before more pieces fall into place, from the CIA contact who is on board (and intent on saving the day, for better and most certainly for worse) to Henry’s last-ditch effort to get his sources to give him something, anything that might help, and the revelation that a mole might be inside Henry and Celia’s station.

“All the Old Knives”

Amazon

It’s that mole who eventually brings the pair back together nearly a decade later. As the hi-jacking works toward horrifying ends, Celia slips away — both from a shellshocked Henry and a rattled workplace — and eventually surfaces in Carmel, California. She’s worked hard to leave behind her old life (and please don’t mistake Celia’s ship-jumping as proof of her potential guilt, there’s innumerable more twists to navigate through before the film even approaches a final judgment of any of its characters), but Henry is on a mission that can’t possibly be completed without her assistance. The past romantic drama? Another wrinkle in an already complicated reunion.

The hi-jacking went badly, and Henry and the Vienna station — still led by a poker-faced Laurence Fishburne (great here, but exceedingly under-used) and once the stomping grounds of a similarly underutilized Jonathan Pryce — have never been the same. While time has been a bit more kind to Celia (Newton looks wonderful throughout the film, though she understandably gets more exhausted as the movie ticks on), Henry has become weathered by all that’s transpired. And it will only get worse when his quest to root out the mole once and for all leads him across Vienna, London, and finally to Carmel (to say nothing of the memories he, along with the audience, is forced to trample through with increasing intensity).

“All the Old Knives”

Amazon

That old spark is definitely still there once he and Celia meet up again (and, in flashbacks, the duo turn the heat way up as Metz guides us through the beats of their once-sparkling romance), but there’s also the distinct undercurrent of something much more dark. Distrust? Guilt? Buried secrets? All of that and more are on offer during an early dinner, in which Henry and Celia both play cat and mouse, hunter and hunted, and two people just trying to work their way through the most fraught meal of their lives.

Either half of “All the Old Knives” would be meaty enough, though the film’s interest in gradually (very gradually) uniting those two segments through the classic espionage theme of “hey, who can you really trust?” add up to something more satisfying. If Metz’s film teaches us anything, it’s to never take things at face value, and while audiences might think they have a grip on what’s really going on early in the film’s 101-minute running time, Steinhauer’s story offers switchbacks to spare.

Newton does fine work as the film’s flickering heartbeat — at every turn, you can sense just how fragile Celia’s grip is on her own existence, both in the past and during the current day — but it’s Pine who emerges as the film’s true MVP. Sneakily open-hearted, his Henry makes for a fine spy-about-town, but the simmering emotion  and pain underneath his put-together veneer go miles toward pumping up the film’s emotional value. Come for the espionage thrills, stay for the wrenching dissection of what it means to really love someone. That’s what really cuts deep.

Grade: B

An Amazon Original film, “All the Old Knives” will be in select theaters and streaming globally on Prime Video on Friday, April 8.

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