Chris Pine and Thandie Newton make espionage sexy in All the Old Knives

click to enlarge A scene with Thandie Newton and Chris Pine that you'll see over and over again.

A scene with Thandie Newton and Chris Pine that you’ll see over and over again.

Just a week after the release of his action movie The Contractor, Chris Pine returns with another spy thriller, albeit one with a more subdued, cerebral tone. That’s not to say that there isn’t some decent suspense in All the Old Knives, but there are no car chases or gunfights. Much of the story unfolds between two people sitting at a table in a high-end restaurant, sharing some sophisticated dishes and assessing each other’s accounts of events from eight years earlier.

Pine plays Henry Pelham, a CIA agent stationed in Vienna who’s tasked by his boss, Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), to reopen the case of a disastrous airplane hijacking in 2012. That incident led to the deaths of everyone on board, and Vick tells Henry that the CIA has recently captured the alleged mastermind, who claims that he had access to inside intel from the agency. The terrorist leader is now dead, so Henry has to piece together the truth by talking to his fellow agents, looking for holes in their stories.

Mainly that means meeting up with Celia Harrison (Thandie Newton), who also happens to be Henry’s former lover. The two were fiercely devoted to each other, but Celia left suddenly right after the hijacking debacle, quitting the CIA and moving to California, where she’s now married with two children. Henry contacts Celia under the guise of being in town for a conference, but he quickly reveals his true motives, and the movie cuts back and forth between their conversation and their actions on the day of the attack.

Director Janus Metz and screenwriter Olen Steinhauer (working from his own novel) also splice in bits of conversation between Henry and Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), another agent potentially under suspicion. The cross-cutting is efficient and effective, moving the story forward in multiple timelines while deepening the relationship between Henry and Celia. Pine and Newton have strong chemistry, both as wary spies with competing agendas and as romantic partners whose intense feelings have lingered for years. Metz throws in a few surprisingly steamy sex scenes, adding some heat to a genre that has largely become chaste in the last couple of decades.

Elsewhere, the movie relies on more formulaic genre elements, including the stock Islamic terrorist villains, who might as well just be placeholders. The hijacker’s demands are essentially meaningless, serving only to provide tension among the spies and force them to make impossible choices. There’s a connection to an informant that Henry worked with during his time stationed in Moscow, but Henry’s moral anguish isn’t nearly as compelling as it’s set up to be. Metz aims for the ethical complexity of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but at best this is Le Carré Lite.

For all the dangerous stakes of the anti-terrorist operation, the narrative in All the Old Knives often feels limited, constantly returning to Henry and Celia sitting in a near-empty restaurant. There’s a reason for that, which arrives with the inevitable but largely satisfying third-act twist, but it still makes the CIA’s reach seem constrained and insular. Metz shows just enough of the larger action to make it frustrating not to see more. These characters seem like they’ve been sealed off for eight years, biding their time to return to the same discussions.

In a way, though, that’s the point, that neither Henry nor Celia has moved on from those events, and that they could never escape returning to the most horrible day of their lives, both professionally and personally. There’s a vast world of espionage surrounding them, but All the Old Knives keeps Henry and Celia’s story appealingly intimate. ♦

Two and a Half Stars ALL THE OLD KNIVES

Rated R

Directed by Janus Metz

Starring Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Jonathan Pryce

Streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting April 8

Article Source: Inlander