Review: ‘All the Old Knives’

Janus Metz’s All the Old Knives is the type of intelligent spy intrigue that stands alongside the works of Le Carre. Working through subtle conversation and shades of murky moral compromise rather than gunshots and explosions (of which I think there’s only one, and offscreen), it’s an engaging effort and the type of adult thriller that rarely gets made today.

It’s classicism is certainly aided by the suave presence of Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, two modern actors who look and feel right at home either toiling in the Vienna snow as CIA agents or masquerading as ex-intelligence soldiers years later in a comfy seaside restaurant. Their interplay (or interrogation as it soon becomes clear) is the bulk of the film and both arm themselves with sexuality, cunning, and intelligence that gives All the Old Knives it’s bite.

But before we get to this showdown of wits and shadowy history, the film begins eight years earlier in 2012 when their CIA substation is hit with an international crisis when a plane hijacking incident goes terribly wrong.

Under the leadership of station chief Vick (Laurence Fishburne), Celia (Newton) and Henry (Pine) are busy chasing down their informants in an attempt to stop the bloodshed while also carrying on their own torrid love affair.

Needles to say, things end badly for all sides (magnified by the event carried around the world on television) and it’s now 2020 when chief Vick decides to re-open old wounds and investigate a possible leak in his house that ultimately led to its failure. He puts Henry in charge of vetting old staff members which leads him to his ex-lover as well as co-worker Bill (an excellent Jonathan Pryce).

From this simple set-up of intrigue, All the Old Knives settles into a two-hander between Pine and Newton in a scenic Carmel-by-the-Sea setting that has them rehashing not only what happened on that fateful day, but also giving each of them glimpses into what could have been. Over delectable food and lots of California country wine, the film stalls on these two as they oscillate between flirtation and hard nosed facts from a spook-lifetime-ago. It’s a pure delight to watch the pair globe hop as Metz wrangles two timelines, pre and post incident, creating a separate tension that both actors handle gracefully.

Based on mystery writer Olen Steinhaur’s book (who also penned the screenplay), All the Old Knives is immensely enjoyable. It’s refreshing to see a modern spy film that doesn’t get tripped up in special effects or explosive set pieces….. although I do hold a special place for the muscular kineticism of the Bourne films. I suppose there’s room for both, but All the Old Knives lines up with the best films of the genre where words and devious ulterior motives are more deadly than anything physical.

And in the midst of all the spook talk and spycraft, it’s the performances of Pine and Newton that really carry the film. We care about all the double and triple crosses because their truth is often stranger than fiction in their line of work. The film draws them as flawed individuals caught up in a game of international espionage, forcing them into a charade of dishonesty. So who’s really telling the truth and, after a lifetime of ‘playacting’, how much honesty can these two really reveal? In the crowded field of spy thrillers, All the Old Knives amply blurs the lines. Le Carre always called his duplicitous agencies “the circus” and I can’t imagine a more succinct analogy for Pine and Newton than that.

All the Old Knives opens in limited theatrical release on Friday April 8th. It also begins streaming on Amazon Prime the same day.