All the Old Knives movie review (2022)

Eight years ago, a plane was hijacked in Vienna and the members of the CIA station there—including agents Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) and superiors Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) and Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce)—pursued any and all possible leads to try to figure out a way to defuse the situation before blood was shed. This failed and all 120 people on board, terrorists and hostages alike, were killed. Now, new information has come to light suggesting there was a mole in the office who may have secretly provided information to the terrorists. Henry is charged with interviewing the surviving members of the group—one mysteriously committed suicide a couple of months after the incident—to see if he can ferret out which one is guilty.

Which leads to the reunion in a fancy restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea between the former lovers. They have not seen each other since Celia took off in the wake of the tragedy, and after the requisite catching-up banter and perhaps a hint of low-grade flirting, their discussion turns to eight years earlier. The film then uses parallel timelines, cutting between the current conversation between Henry and Celia and extended flashbacks showing what they were doing during the crisis. It soon becomes clear at least one of them knows more about what happened than they are letting on, and that the sumptuous feast they have been consuming will most likely prove to be the last meal for at least one of them.

As espionage narratives go, “All the Old Knives,” which is based on the novel by Olen Steinhauer (who also wrote the screenplay), is closer to the more cerebral and realistic creations of John le Carré than the comic book fantasies of James Bond (underscored perhaps a bit too bluntly at one point where Henry attempts to order a vodka martini and is rebuffed). The early set-up scenes are reasonably intriguing but at a certain point, things just stop working. One key problem is that the flashback structure never quite works and ends up halting any dramatic tension practically every time it goes back and forth in time. Another is that the big center mystery proves to be not much of anything—at a certain point, it becomes fairly obvious what the answer is and when all is finally revealed, the revelation and subsequent explanation is somewhat of a letdown.

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