With its frequent jumps in time, All the old knives
runs the risk of losing the viewer somewhere in the space-time continuum. Movies like this, which require a non-linear approach for maximum impact, risk diluting the characters, which is certainly happening here. We’re so busy trying to put all the pieces together and put the timeline of events together that we almost forget about the human element. Thankfully, Olen Steinhauer’s screenplay (based on his book) is smart, relying more on misunderstandings, misunderstandings, and mistakes than traditional action set pieces. And, by the time we’ve put it all together, there’s still an opportunity to To feel.
Chris Pine may be best known as the latest incarnation of Captain James T. Kirk but, with Kirk (temporarily?) on the shelf, Pine has drifted into other realms. He played Wonder Woman’s love interest in both vehicles starring Gal Gadot and ventured into spy/special ops stories, including one in which he played Jack Ryan. In All the old knives (not to be confused with The contractor, which comes out almost simultaneously), Pine plays the Ryan-esque Henry Pellham, an agent assigned by his boss, Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), to investigate the agency’s response to a terrorist attack six years ago. . Top brass have determined that some of the intelligence information in the possession of the terrorists has been leaked, implying the existence of a mole. Pellham is tasked with unmasking the mole and handling the “cleanup” (eliminating them). He has two main suspects: his former colleague Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and his long-lost love, Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton). Celia is married and has children but, when the two meet for an interview, it’s clear that the two have unresolved feelings for each other. The mystery of how they didn’t end up living “happily ever after” is explored in detail via numerous flashbacks from multiple viewpoints.
All the old knives it’s two films for the price of one. The one that occurs in the current time period, which chronicles Henry’s investigation, follows a fairly straightforward mystery pattern. There are a limited number of suspects (red runaways included) and it’s up to the viewer to deduce the identity of the culprit. It is as much a whydunit? like a pole?
The flashbacks, when put together in order and connected, provide the backstory and this is where the film falls short of its potential. The narrative thread of terrorist action and the intelligence community’s ultimate failure is compelling material, but its presentation is frustrating and incomplete. We’re only spoon-fed insofar as they relate to the investigation, tantalizing us with a Tom Clancy-esque tale without fully saying it. We get enough to form a basic understanding (and what went wrong) but not enough to appreciate the enormity of the tragedy. Flashbacks only appear insofar as they inform aspects of the investigation. Admittedly, it would probably take an extra hour of screen time to fully flesh things out and that would put the film on an unwieldy 2.5 hour runtime.
All the old knives does not have a large cast. The majority of the screen time goes to Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, who are very good at it (although hairstyles aside, there isn’t much difference between their appearances in the two separate time periods). Newton is eight years older than Pine but he plays Henry a bit older than his actual age and she plays Celia younger. Their chemistry is strong, giving the tragedy and mystery of their failed romance as much weight as the larger aspect of espionage. The other two “big name” actors, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce, are underutilized (especially Fishburne). I imagine their scenes only took a few days to film.
Keeping in mind the limitations imposed on production by operating time, All the old knives delivers a gripping (if ultimately unremarkable) spy flick that leans more toward drama than a conventional action/thriller. There may not be enough complexity for a Clancy narrative, but it’s in the same general ballpark.
All the Old Knives (US, 2022)