CAST: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Gala Gordon, Corey Johnson, Colin Stinton, Ahd Kamel, David Bedella
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins
BASICALLY…: Two CIA operatives and former lovers (Pine and Newton) reunite to re-examine a failed mission years earlier…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It isn’t uncommon for authors to adapt their own source material for the screen – Stephen King, William Peter Blatty, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and even Agatha Christie are only but a few of the known writers to have done so – and now spy fiction novelist Olen Steinhauer adds his name to the list, by adapting his 2015 standalone novella All The Old Knives into a classy, handsome thriller for director Januz Metz.
Appropriately, the adaptation often feels like a novel come to life, structured and presented in such a way that suggests only someone with a stronger background in writing books over screenplays could have penned this for a wider, much more visual audience. However, despite some occasional novelist-to-screen pitfalls, All The Old Knives remains compelling and even theatrical enough to leave a decent impression, in part thanks to a strong cast and even stronger filmmaking.
On-screen, the story is similar to how it is in the book: taking place eight years after a terrorist plane hijacking ends with everyone being tragically killed, Vienna-based CIA agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) – a formerly active operative now pushing pencils in an office-based role – is notified by his superior Vick (Laurence Fishburne) that the case has been reopened, and that evidence suggests of there being a mole within the Vienna branch that might have provided the terrorists with information that thwarted the CIA’s rescue mission. Henry is tasked with contacting and interrogating two of his former colleagues about their roles in the failed mission: semi-retired Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) who’s settled in London, and most significantly Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who happens to be Henry’s former lover, and has now settled in California with her new family. For the former, Henry arranges a dinner meet with Celia, and most of the film is spent at a quiet restaurant where, over dinner, the two former lovers discuss their past affair, their roles in the hijacking case, and whether or not either one had anything to do with its tragic outcome.
The restaurant setting is a neat framing device that sets the scene for the drama that is about to unfold, not just via flashbacks but also in the present. It allows for fine containment of the action without ever feeling it’s a bottle episode, with director Metz frequently cutting back and forth from the tense build-up on that fateful day, to the sunset-drenched backgrounds in this fancy Californian restaurant. There are few sudden rug-pulls in this structure because the editing smoothly takes its time with each vital bit of information, and most importantly the script paces itself nicely to allow said exposition to sink in without rushing through some of the more important moments that unfold. It’s a comfortable sit, one that’s easy to digest as well as watch, because the story is compelling and sucks you in with its many layers of mystery, which slowly unravel as the movie plods through one fancy-looking meal after another.
It is also a very well-acted movie, with a bulk of the emotion and drama being given to both Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, whose cool and intimate chemistry harkens back to the likes of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight. Pine, who in recent years has certainly shed that pretty-boy image he became known for with the Star Trek movies, delivers a mature and nuanced turn as someone who you’re never entirely sure about until right at the very end, and the same goes for Newton who keeps her cards close to her own chest until the perfectly chosen moment when she decides to finally reveal her hand. The other two noteworthy actors, an always great-to-watch combo of Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne, have decidedly less to do than our slightly younger leads, with Fishburne in particular being largely relegated to delivering handy bits of exposition and standing around looking frustrated, but the strength of both Pine and Newton’s performances carry the film far enough to make even their smaller contributions feels just as exciting.
Occasionally, though, Steinheuer’s script will display signs that a more descriptive author wrote it instead of a more visual-based screenwriter – for example, there are a number of exposition paragraphs that take away from some of the on-screen drama, and the ultimate conclusion is paced like how the author may have written such a scene in one of his books. However, All The Old Knives remains fully watchable, as the kind of smooth thriller you can put on one evening for an easy watch, and get caught up in without feeling too guilty for having enjoyed.
SO, TO SUM UP…
All The Old Knives is a smooth and very watchable spy thriller that is boosted by a compelling story, strong direction and some nuanced performances by Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, which even a script that occasionally feels too long-winded for the screen contributing to its decency.