Film Review – All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives

There’s an old saying: Never work with your loved ones. Mixing business with pleasure rarely work out – emotions get mixed with duty to the point that distrust and resentment start leaking through the cracks. Now imagine that dynamic steeped in the realm of the CIA and counterterrorism. Yeesh. All the Old Knives (2022) has the elements of a traditional thriller, but also operates a kind of tragic love story. The two characters at its heart are pushed and pulled between the affection they have for each other and the allegiance they have for their country. It’s a love triangle between a man, a woman, and their government.

Directed by Janus Metz and written by Olen Steinhauer (adapted from his book), the narrative is broken down into several moving parts. At the center lies a terrible event in which a group of terrorists hijacked a grounded plane in Austria. The hijacking – and the ensuing rescue attempt – end in tragedy. Fast forward eight years, with Agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) being ordered to reopen the case. The agency has gotten wind that there may have been a mole within their ranks that contributed to the attack. Henry is assigned to investigate everyone that was part of the rescue mission to sniff out the culprit. The trail leads him to a fateful reunion with Celia (Thandiwe Newton), a fellow agent and who also happens to be Henry’s ex-lover.

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The editing (Mark EckersleyPer Sandholt) jumps between time and perspective. The main story has Henry and Celia meeting at a fancy restaurant at Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s one of those locations where the sun always seems to be setting no matter what time it is. As Henry and Celia exchange pleasantries and dig into the nitty gritty of the case, we flashback to the time of the hijacking. The two (as a couple) work together to unravel as much info as they can into the terrorists, their motives, and any possible entry points for a counterattack. There’s a whole of bunch of talk about informants, back door deals, shadowy espionage – the usual stuff. 

The timeline moves back and forth so often that we start wondering who did what and when. Given that we already know the result of the mission, a lot of the tension is watered down. We watch Henry move about between different groups of people – from insiders, co-conspirators, to even his superiors (Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce). But the main crux lies between Henry and Celia. It’s no secret that one – or both – knows more than what they are letting on. Part of the fun is seeing how the two dance around their chit chat, trying to filter out what is true and what is a lie. Unfortunately, the narrative can’t keep the high wire act going. Every time the suspense picks up, the film cuts to yet another needless flashback – showing either a romantic moment or the events surrounding the hijacking.

The pacing structures events in a leisurely, methodical manner. Those looking for high-octane action will not find it here. Things unfold gradually, delivering information in bits and pieces throughout. The problem is that the biggest surprises can be decoded early on. The twists are not all the shocking and can be guessed quickly. Of course, knowing the ending doesn’t necessarily sink a movie. The key is in how we arrive to that conclusion. Sadly, the production hops along with little variation to this familiar story. I was neither riveted nor hooked by the central mystery. We have to patiently wait for characters to catch up on knowledge we already surmised from the beginning.

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Luckily, the strong performances make up for the narrative shortcomings. Chris Pine shows that he works better within the confines of a character study rather than a big budget blockbuster. He fills Henry with different shades of good and bad, turning the character from a bland investigator to someone whose intensions are not always clear. Thandiwe Newton matches him as Celia. Celia has lost the taste for the spy world, but through her meeting with Henry, we can see all the conflicting emotions she has for him and the business she walked away from. Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce also make the most of their limited screen time, adding weight and charisma to their characters through their presence alone. 

I have not read Steinhauer’s novel, but seeing this adaptation makes me wonder how well it works on the page. With the constant narration, shifting POVs, and nonlinear timeline, the material feels better suited for the written word. As a novel, the story has the freedom to go on tangents and double back, yet still like one whole piece. As a movie, however, it is too disjointed. It’s difficult to get invested in characters when a lot of work is placed into simply figuring out how all the pieces fit. There is a good film somewhere inside All the Old Knives but having to dig through the weeds to find it might be too much effort for very little reward.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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