Though the the political crime thriller genre may no longer be as booming as it was in the decade following 9/11, the world of international espionage and counterterrorism still seems to remain a frequent point of interest for Amazon Studios – if their small gaggle of shows like Reacher, Jack Ryan, and Bosch are anything to go by. Amazon’s latest film, All the Old Knives is no exception – a backstabbing, double-crossing political thriller that follows a pair of former lovers (Thandiwe Newton and Chris Pine) as they reopen a cold case and attempt to find a mole within the CIA who leaked information that ended up costing more than a 100 civilians their lives.
While both Henry Pelham (Pine) and Celia Harrison (Newton) were operatives working within the CIA at the time of the attack, which takes place 8 years before the events of the film and is shown in numerous flashbacks and timeline jumps, they separate almost immediately after the plane hijacking, and in the years since have grown distant. While Henry remained with the CIA, Celia left her work behind and started a new life and family, much to the dismay of her former lover, who still holds a torch for her. However, when Henry receives orders to reopen an investigation into a mole in the CIA who aided in the hijacking, the two engage in a tense dinner/interrogation, reuniting for the first time in nearly a decade as Henry is tasked with determining whether or not Celia had anything to do with the attack.
The setup is fairly standard fare as crime thrillers go, but where All the Old Knives struggles is that it buries the lede rather spectacularly with the true hook of its premise – it isn’t until almost halfway through the film that all the players on the board have been exposited, and the film can get on with what it’s truly about – the double-sided interrogation between Celia and Henry as each tries to determine if the other was the rat. It’s a concept from the Mr. and Mrs. Smith playbook, though one executed to a higher level of drama and emotional intrigue, likely thanks in part to the film’s source material, a novel of the same name by Olen Steinhauer, who also penned the screenplay.
The bogged-down first hour of All the Old Knives makes it frustratingly apparent that the film was adapted from a novel – where a book can easily spend a hundred pages introducing character after character, when a film devotes its entire first half to mere setup for the actual story, it feels like a tedious waste of time. Unfortunately for All the Old Knives, the film just can’t quite seem to navigate the necessary evil of exposition while still pacing itself in a way that keeps the viewer intrigued – unless you’ve read the novel and know that Celia and Henry’s dinner will end up with Celia turning the tables on Henry as well, you may not be compelled to stick around long enough for the film to finally stop grinding its gears and get moving.
And get moving it does – though the aforementioned first hour is astonishingly slow and uninteresting (and features, bizarrely, a supporting performance from Laurence Fishburne that’s entirely thankless) once Henry and Celia are seated and all their cards are out on the table, there is genuine tension and intrigue as both they (and the audience) attempts to decipher the truth through a convoluted web of deceit. Granted, thrillers of this flavor are a dime-a-dozen, but the last act of All the Old Knives injects a life and energy into the film that makes it worth sticking around for.
The eventual reveal that the two of them are both suspicious of each other would undoubtedly not have worked without the right actors, and Thandiwe Newton and Chris Pine are both in good form here. Although Pine is the more clear-cut lead of the film, Newton gets her fair share of juicy, emotional scenes that sell both her character and their torrid romance. Also helping to sell their romance are the surprisingly passionate (and gratuitous) sex scenes that sit in stark contrast to the lifeless blue and grey tableaus of CIA headquarters and muddy back alleys where Henry and Celia attempt to wring information from their sources.
All the Old Knives is without question a frustratingly lopsided film; while the first act dredges on seemingly without end, it takes a sharp and sudden turn into the world of well-paced, well-edited drama, thanks to Newton and Pine’s performance, and a whopper of an ending courtesy of screenplay/novelist Steinhauer. Though visually unremarkable and lacking in any sort of directorial flare or hook that might set it apart from half a dozen other similar thrillers, All the Old Knives last act makes it a meal worth sticking around for – though not everyone may live to pay the check.
All the Old Knives will be available in theaters and on Prime Video on April 8.
Photo: Stefania Rosini/Amazon Studios