Moviegoer: All the Old Knives

Two spies walk into a bar in this fun thriller

By Diana Beechener

Former lovers Henry (Chris Pine: The Contractor) and Celia (Thandiwe Newton: Westworld) meet in a quiet restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea eight years after their affair ended. But they’re not sipping wine to reminisce; both are former CIA agents who were involved in a disastrous hijacking incident in Vienna that left no survivors. 

In the years following the terrorist attack, Celia fled the CIA and tried to forget her past by becoming a mom and wife. Henry stayed at the agency and is now tasked with figuring out whether a mole at their station was the reason for the bloodbath in Vienna. After dinner, he’ll either walk away knowing Celia is innocent, or have her killed by a hitman waiting just outside.

Over wine, burrata, and the light threat of murder, both agents pick apart what happened that day, as well as their relationship. Did they miss a sign that could have stopped the hijacking or was the mole right in front of them the whole time? 

Adapted by Olen Steinhauer, and based on his book, All the Old Knives is a spy film with some excellent cinematography and strong performances. Though the story itself feels like le Carré for beginners, it still manages to build tension and characters well enough that you hope the dinner goes on forever, so gunplay isn’t needed. 

Director Janus Metz (ZeroZeroZero) extends the pressure and the drama by playing with time. We have flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and a few side stories that inform the audience what’s really going on. It’s a credit to the film that the story remains straightforward even as it hops around in time with only the length and color of Pine’s hair indicating just where we are in the timeline. 

But the greatest asset to a film that centers on a three-course meal is cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s (Black Narcissus) use of color and framing. The film is awash with stark blue light for the Vienna flashbacks and a beautiful golden palette for the dinner in California. Christensen also beautifully plays with shadow, crafting some stunning images as each character’s motivations are questioned. 

Though the story is a little rote—if you’ve ever seen a spy thriller before, there will be few surprises—it is an excellent example of genre storytelling done well. Metz and the cast embrace the clichés, offering craft and talent where the story lacks. 

All the Old Knives knows exactly what type of movie it is. Even when storytelling falters, this film relies on its excellent cast to keep it interesting. Character acting legends Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce fill in the cast, helping to move plot points along. But the film belongs to Pine and Newton, who have a wonderful, natural chemistry and imbue their characters with enough regret and genuine feeling that the spy story at times seems incidental. Newton’s Celia is riddled with guilt and regret about her time in Vienna, though also fiercely protective of the new life she built. Pine’s Henry has been beaten down by a career in the CIA, and in many ways he sees his dalliance with Celia as the last bit of happiness he’s experienced. When they finally meet, the spark reignites immediately, but both must focus on the task at hand—surviving dinner. 

All the Old Knives isn’t breaking any new ground; it’s the sort of spy thriller you watch with your dad on rainy weekend days. Still, if you’re looking for a thriller that combines the fun bits of le Carré with a ‘70s style end-of-the-affair drama, All the Old Knives is well worth the watch. 

All the Old Knives is on Amazon Prime and in select theaters.

Good Spy Thriller * R * 101 mins.