It’s not often you see somewhat seasoned documentarians transition to feature filmmaking, especially films with an underlying espionage narrative but Janus Metz Pedersen (Love on Delivery, Armadillo, Ticket to Paradise) strolls in with an adequate yet undercooked espionage film. It’s always interesting to see a director who is more experienced in documentaries take on a different field of work but after Pedersen’s successful project, Borg vs McEnroe, I was more than intrigued by the first announcement of All the Old Knives. From the strong array of cast members to the seemingly slow-burn thriller narrative, the film seemed to promise an enthralling yet intense dialogue-heavy depiction of conflict resolution. The story follows Henry Pelham, a hardened operative searching and interrogating fellow CIA employees after a hostage situation involving a plane turns upside down, costing more than 100 lives to be lost. Henry must weed out the mole, alongside the help of his ex-lover Celia Harrison, that leaked valuable information to the terrorists.
Right off the bat, the film starts off abruptly, which in this case is handled carelessly and is fumbled as it feels corny or even cliche, to say the least. Immediately, its clear scenes are seemingly jumbled together without any necessary revisions to smoothen the jumps from scene to scene. And as the film progresses, you’ll begin to notice how the film is going to play out, as it jumps from one timeline to another back and forth. Telling a story in a clunky juxtaposition manner can be quite confusing, and this film does not improve on the form but instead creates a slightly repetitive theme for the rest of the runtime. Since it’s about an 8-year time jump, convoluted storytelling takes a toll, and instead of pushing a compelling narrative, it’s more of a monotonous account that switches to action every so often.
Though messy, the film does include a slightly captivating plot and helps push the intensity are the performances alone. Chris Pine, playing our veteran operative, portrays an almost emotionless Terminator-esque personality at the forefront of his character but is quick to reveal his vulnerable side. It is well-executed to see his character transition smoothly from the stoic, uncompromising vet to a caring and nurturing individual. But not only does Pine push the envelope, Thandiwe Newton brilliantly deconstructs a character, who could have easily been pawned off as your cliche femme fatale and twists it around as this multi-layered empath yearning for an ordinary life after a horrific tragedy. Newton and Pine’s chemistry is across the board realistic and believable, and since they play former lovers, it definitely positively impacts the quality of the film. Towards the climbing point of the film, it becomes more of a Pine and Newton focused project rather than utilizing most of the other members, but it’s not the worst decision since the film shows how convoluted it can be by adding numerous perspectives of characters in scenes.
I suppose the most glaring flaws with the film comes with writing and overall climax. The screenplay itself is mostly monotonous on its own, perpetuating straight forward dialogue that is usually on the nose which does get old after some time. And because most scenes consist of heavy dialogue rather than action filled scenes, it is important to craft scenes containing sharp conversation rather than dull and overly simplified lines made to spoon feed audiences. And since the films themes evolves into a whodunit, the predictability and overall corniness of the “big twist” comes off as extremely disappointing and lackluster. Coupled with the stagnant cinematography and the overly emphasized grays, it’s a shame to say the film is unpleasant to watch after some time. The entirety of the runtime is packed with highly repetitive scenes attempting to construct hints for the audience but the time the film utilizes to hint feels almost wasted as most audiences will end up predicting the twist in less than 20 minutes. It’s difficult to understand the motives of screenwriter Olen Steinhauer, because the film is more or so a long and daunting conversation between 2 individuals accomplishing nothing and everything at the same time. But again, Pine and Newton’s performances carry the inadequacy the film stoops down to.
Although it would be inaccurate to say All The Old Knives is a complete waste of time, I would say it wouldn’t be a complete overstatement. Steinhauer and Pedersen end up producing a picture that is entertaining, and captivating enough to watch till the end but it’s not a film that deserves high praise, because at the end of the day, it’s truly an easy to swallow picture for those looking for a quaint narrative. I wouldn’t go in expecting enough substance to satisfy anyone wanting intelligent screenwriting, rather, Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might be more suitable.