I’ve always had a soft spot for dense talky thrillers. When done well they highlight good screenwriting while giving actors the dramatic material to burrow deep into their characters. And when combined with the right director, able actors, and strong script, a simple conversation in a restaurant can be as tense and engrossing as any well-done nail-biting action sequence.
Based on the book by Olen Steinhauer, “All the Old Knives” delivers that kind of dialogue-heavy experience but with a strong romantic underpinning that sets it apart. Steinhauer, who also wrote the screenplay, teams with director Janus Metz and a lights-out cast to craft a heady and intelligent cloak-and-dagger mystery steeped in governmental intrigue, deep-rooted espionage, and betrayal.
The movie opens up in 2012 Vienna, with a room of stunned CIA agents getting word that hijackers have killed every passenger and crew member aboard Turkish Alliance flight 127. A shocking 120 men, woman, and children murdered inside the plane as it sat on the tarmac of Vienna’s international airport. The events of Flight 127 loom over the rest of the story like a dark ominous cloud.
Jump ahead eight years. Langley has reopened the investigation into flight 127 following the capture of a terrorist who was involved in the planning of the hijacking. He’s made a claim that the terrorists had help from inside the CIA’s Vienna station. CIA Chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), who was head of the CIA operation in Vienna, is tasked with combing over his old team to find out if they had a mole in their midst. He calls in case officer Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), a trusted agent who was also in Vienna eight years earlier. Vick sends Henry to discover the truth so they can finally close the books on Flight 127.
Before anything else, there are two former colleagues Henry will need to rule out first. Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), the Vienna station’s second in command now residing in London. And Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), a wife and mother of two and Henry’s former lover. Both were key members of the Vienna team and both are potential suspects. From there the movie follows Henry’s meetings with Bill and Celia, hopping back and forth on the timeline as they each try and recall the events of that traumatic day.
The movie looks like a spy thriller, sounds like a spy thriller, and mostly plays like a spy thriller. But when it comes to mystery and truth-digging, it’s just as much about the core relationship between Pine’s Henry and Newton’s Celia. As the truth about Flight 127 is slowly unearthed, so are the details of their steamy romance which all but ended the day of the massacre. Metz and Steinhauer do a stellar job weaving together both threads of their story while bouncing back-and-forth from the past to present day. And pacing is everything in a slow-boil like this. “All the Old Knives” is definitely slow, but Pedersen keeps it at a steady boil.
Overall this is a fun and engrossing throwback thriller that’s a far cry from the more action-packed showy side of spy movies. It mines it’s tension from the emotions and intensity of its characters which lets the performances really shine. The cast sinks their teeth into this cerebral and tightly wound story which keeps us guessing right up to its solid payoff. It might not play as well for the more action-hungry crowd. But any fan of rich, layered, dialogue-driven thrillers will enjoy what “All the Old Knives” has to offer. “All the Old Knives” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Thanks for this review, Keith. I’ll definitely check the film out now. I was hesitant before as the title, while interesting, did not grab me.
It just slipped by me somehow. I forgot it was even a thing. Came across it on streaming and was really surprised. Give it a shot.
Yes I’ve been bypassing this when looking on Netflix for a movie, will give it a go.
I enjoyed it (obviously). I know it’s been a little too talky for some. But it mostly clicked for me.
I saw this one. I love Chris and Thandiwe and was ready to love it, but did not. It missed for me. The back and forth narration was tedious for me. I’m glad you liked it.
I really did. It kinda surprised me. I’m not sure how it slipped by me.
I’ve heard about this. It sort of came and went as it got a lot of lukewarm reviews. I might check it out eventually as I do love those actors.
It sure did. I missed it during its first release. I’m glad I caught up with it.
Yeah this was good. I really liked Newton and Pine, and the tension was well established. Had some problems with the logic toward the end but that’s super spoiler-y so I won’t mention it but otherwise yeah, a solid low-key spy thriller.
It was a nice surprise, especially as a movie that for some wild reason I completely missed.
Sounds good and I like the 2 main characters.
Yep. Really good leads!