Chris Pine; hardy perennial, or victim of fungal decay? Playing Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot looked a cert to send Pine where no man has gone before, but a frustrating second episode and a franchise-stalling third entry left the actor looking for a break elsewhere. Having struck out with another reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Pine attempts to get his career back on track by executive producing and starring in this low-key spy thriller; while flawed, it’s more agreeably adult than most of the above projects.
Adapted by Olen Steinhauer from his novel by the same name, Janus Metz Pedersen’s film for Prime, aka Amazon’s streaming division, is very much in the kitchen-sink espionage genre, even if the kitchen is pretty well-appointed. CIA agent Henry Pelham (Pine) is haunted by a commercial-airline hostage-situation which turned into a massacre. That was eight years ago in Austria; since then, Pelham has changed his hairstyle from Interview with a Vampire Cruise to current-day Pierce Brosnan, but no amount of radical coiffure action will help dull the pain, particularly since Pelham broke up with fellow operative Celia (Thandiwe Newton) the same night as the killings. Pelham travels to Carmel, California to confront Celia in a posho restaurant, but who betrayed the CIA’s inside man in Austria, and who was and is zooming who today?
All the Old Knives has a worthy supporting cast to make the early stages play as a whodunit; Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne are old hands at this kind of pointed enterprise. But the plot mechanics are tricky, with flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, and the main narrative almost entirely told within one rather theatrical location. There’s no chases, punch-ups or stunts; All the Old Knives aims for a le Carre cool, and comes close enough to be watchable fare.
But with the action set in 2020, there’s a big credibility issue here; two years ago, geopolitics was all about the fresh wound caused by the triple threats of Russia, Covid-19 and Trump, wounds that are still gaping today. ‘Stupidity runs international relations as much as anything else’ notes one character, but that’s as close as All the Old Knives comes to addressing the deliberate sabotage of international relations over the last few years; one character bemoans the role of “American sanctions’ in the death of his six year old daughter, a jarring note given that American sanctions are currently hyped as the best solution to the ongoing war in Europe. It’s asking a lot for us to care about which agent furtively used another agent’s land-line extension eight years ago when death is raining down on innocents in Europe right now. As Pine and Newton settle down to a burst of photogenic 90’s-era humping, it’s clear that All the Old Knives is an outmoded old-school espionage-thriller that’s rather short of sharpness when it comes to today’s on-going geopolitical crisis.