Convoluted spy thriller ‘All the Old Knives’ can’t whip up any interest

Pining for the days of Tom Clancy and John Le Carré movie adaptations in which cynical good-hearted spooks knew who their enemies were, All the Old Knives fails to move as a thriller or an excuse to give old pros the chance to ham it up. A large part of the problem is the casting of Chris Pine, who looks like George Michael processed in a space lab, but despite their best efforts his stubble and terrifying blue eyes can project neither cynicism nor good-heartedness; at best he has a self-mocking presence, like a former star quarterback addressing high school seniors. The film’s other problem is a narrative structure too clever by half which builds to a revelation any spy novel aficionado would’ve guessed in the first ten minutes of this 100-minute film.

Henry “The Taking Of” Pelham, a decade after terrorists brought down Turkish Alliance Flight 127, is summoned by boss Vick Wallinger (a wasted Laurence Wishburne) to investigate the possibility of a leak at the Vienna station where they both worked, a decision that results in a lot of angst, for All the Old Knives is one of those thrillers where intelligence operatives rattle off data about terrorist organizations while reaction shots capture actors gathered around a conference table, stricken. There are more furrowed brows than at a Monopoly convention. Pine has the furrowest. The furriest too — his eyebrows are practically biological weapons.

Nevertheless, the investigation requires his getting in contact with former agent and lover Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), retired and living in moneyed isolation at Carmel-By-the-Sea. They meet at a wine-only restaurant with stunning views of the valley but weirdly understaffed and underpopulated. Over their burrata with cilantro oil and pumpkin puree Celia and Henry fight the erotic attraction that never went away. An Austrian intelligence agent approached her after her retirement, she says, with a request: rat out her coworkers. The revelation kickstarts a stream of flashbacks related to the 127 incident. At the Vienna station Celia’s former mentor (Jonathan Pryce, born to paly former mentors) may have been involved, especially after consulting the logs she spots several calls to Iran from his office phone (nice job, former mentor). Sarin gas released on flight kills everyone on board. Guilt forces Henry and Celia to split.

All the Old Knives has the pedigree and as-sparkling-in-a-new-Radisson-Hotel look to present itself as a stylish, snappy thriller, but the contortions to which director Janus Metz subjects Olen Steinhauer’s novel requires a dry erase board and markers to figure out. There aren’t many laughs in this material because plot exigencies don’t require them, I guess; nevertheless, I did chuckle when Henry decries “a rococo analysis” of failures, not just because this is Chris Pine saying “rococo” but because “rococo” describes the flashback and flashforwards Metz and editors Mark Eckersley and Per Sandholt whip up to sustain interest. Pine and Newton are attractive people given little chance to relax as performers. Perhaps too attractive in Pine’s case. Maybe CIA agents take better care of themselves these days than in the Cold War era. But one thing has changed: when The Big Revelation comes, the audience learns a certain character didn’t do it for country or money, they did it for love. Alec Guinness’ George Smiley would’ve put out a cigarette on this character’s left eye.

GRADE: C

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