Break-ups are bad. Especially when the individuals involved genuinely loved each other. But do you know what can complicate an already complicated situation? Your ex having contributed to hundreds of deaths in a plane hijacking.
All the Old Knives is essentially a break-up movie that is disguised, for some strange reason, as an espionage thriller. Grossly miscast, confusingly structured, and sullied by random moments of gratuitous nudity, it’s ironic that of the two movies that Chris Pine has coming out in the same week, the better-titled one will probably be the worst.
Pine plays one of his typical charming rogues, a spy called Henry Pelham, who in the film’s opening moments is instructed by his station chief to flush out a mole in the division. The prime suspect is Henry’s former lover, Celia (Thandiwe Newton), who suddenly disappeared from his life one day after a botched hijacking that resulted in the deaths of all hostages.
For a moment, the film tantalisingly suggests that it will play out entirely across a dinner table, as Henry and Celia meet up years after they abruptly split, under the pretext of hashing out the past. She doesn’t know that it’s essentially an interrogation. But very quickly, it is made clear that director Janus Metz is going to take the roundabout way to tell his story.
All the Old Knives is butchered beyond recognition thanks to its overreliance on tonally disconnected flashback sequences. So, as Henry feels Celia out over some fancy Napa county wine and a 12-course meal, we cut to tense moments from the hijacking, dramatic scenes between Henry and his CIA colleagues, and the dull melodrama of Henry and Celia’s love story. I was wondering why they cast Pine and Newton in roles that would essentially require them to sit across a table and size each other up, but then the movie threw in the first of its two ill-timed sex scenes, and I went, ‘Okay’.
Come to think of it, there’d be no good time for these scenes in this movie, especially in the manner that they’re presented. We’re meant to believe that these two characters are properly in love, and that Henry was heartbroken when Celia disappeared, but the movie never bothers to develop their relationship in any meaningful way. All we get is a series of smouldering silences that invariably end with everybody’s clothes on the floor and Pine mooning you for what feels like an entire minute. This is a running problem with nearly every narrative thread that the movie unfurls, in the hope that we’d be invested enough to watch Metz attempt to tie them together at the end.
Speaking of Metz, this is an unusual miss for the Danish filmmaker, who burst onto the scene with his phenomenal Iraq War documentary Armadillo, and then went on to direct episodes of True Detective and ZeroZeroZero. Despite its over-eagerness to trot the globe and pretend that it is more cinematic than it really is, All the Old Knives has the distinct energy of a pandemic project. And cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s hyper-stylised lighting in the restaurant scenes certainly don’t help. If anything, this sort of telegraphs a third-act twist.
Terrific actors such as Jonathan Pryce — second spy title in as many weeks for him, by the way — and Lawrence Fishburne are wasted in scenes that they probably filmed in two days. And you can watch the strain on Pine and Newton’s faces as they try to root the overly complicated plot in some kind of human emotion. I don’t know if it was a general disinterest or a growing resentment with the project, but Newton’s accent noticeably slips in the film’s final moments. It’s exactly the sort of sour note on which you’d expect something as sloppy as this to end.
All the Old Knives
Director – Janus Metz
Cast – Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Lawrence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce
Rating – 1.5/5