In All the Old Knives, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Chris Pine plays CIA agent Henry Pelham, a man fated to dig through the past. This is a spy flick tied to the tale of an old flame. Eight years before it’s set, a plane is taken hostage in Vienna, where Henry and his spy colleagues are based. The long and short of it is that things go wrong. All of the hostages — 120 people — lose their lives. Here comes Henry nearly a decade later, with a still-angry Austria demanding answers and a directive from his boss Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) to figure out what happened.
It’s a unique mission in that digging into this past involves getting back in touch with an ex-girlfriend. Can you imagine? All the Old Knives is ultimately less interpersonally messy than this summary implies, but the nugget of plot at its center still makes for a watchable enough dilemma about broken trust, secrets — you know how it goes.
Thandiwe Newton plays Celia, the former lover in question, who’s moved on, gotten married, started a family. She’s a pescatarian now. She lives in California. Henry travels there to meet her and, as she doesn’t realize until they’re already together, conduct an informal interrogation — over dinner, during a scenic coastal sunset, amid much moony-eyed longing and gut-spilling. The movie, which was directed by Janus Metz Pedersen from a screenplay from novelist Olen Steinhauer, is largely set here, during this conversation. Flashbacks take us back to 2012, as Celia and Henry get reacquainted with both each other and the incident that Henry is investigating. Moments of conversation trigger its other strands of interest. We’re taken to the plane as it’s being hijacked, to the rooms of the CIA’s office in Vienna, to the back alleys and parking garages where spy intel in movies so often goes down.
The wine keeps flowing. Celia takes a bite of bacon, despite her diet. Questions about the hijacking blend with glimpses of the threatening missives that gun-toting Somali men sent from on that plane. It’s all too seamlessly integrated by the movie to be a buzzkill, exactly, but in a movie of this style, the spies’ romantic lives are not so flagrant as to feel like a total conflict of interest. Ultimately, Henry accepts his mission knowing that he may very well wind up having to kill his ex-girlfriend; this is what Laurence Fishburne has sent him to do. And All the Old Knives gradually finds its stride, mixing tamped-down lovers’ quarrels and global terrorism without making anyone feel awkward about it and, maybe relatedly, without being too memorable about it. It’s a little strange — no, ridiculous, which is not always a bad thing for a movie to be — for discussions about a terrorist event to keep colliding with this couple’s current fits of truth and reconciliation. But that’s what makes it a romance. One moment, in a flashback, Henry and Celia are juggling meetings about Chechen extremism and the lives of hostages, the next they’re stealing away to make out and talk about their plans to move in together; one moment they’re lovers, the next they’re enemies. And yet a word like “enemy” is almost too drastic for this movie, with its muted visual tones and relative lack of rage.
Obviously, there’s a twist. Obviously, someone is lying: Spy games and love games have this quality in common. And when the lies are seemingly revealed — it’s almost unceremonious, slipping into the movie after a sustained but low-frequency build-up — more questions arise. About the mysterious man at the bar who’s been watching Henry and Celia talk, a man whose directives grow clearer as the intentions behind them, behind this whole mysterious mess, grow more slippery (and as the actors’ makeup gets more distorted by slobber). All the Old Knives is brief enough, politely suspenseful enough, for its stars to carry without much hassle. The story’s gentle chipping away at world politics is bland enough for Celia and Henry’s fate to overpower, in terms of our interest. Love, politics, what’s the difference? The movie isn’t up to much. It pulls off the little that it sets out to do.