.Dull Blade: Spy flicks aren’t supposed to be as tedious as ‘All the Old Knives’

CIA operative Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) is in a bit of a jam. In his efforts to rid the agency of an unknown mole who may be responsible for a deadly skyjacking, Henry is brought face to face with his former colleague, Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who also happens to be Henry’s ex-lover. They talk it over at length. Tension builds. Ticklish situation, one that calls for a snappy screenplay as well as a certain amount of that old elusive ingredient, the notorious “chemistry,” between Pine and Newton. That’s the theory.

All the Old Knives is the type of movie for which the term “spyboiler” was coined. As dreamed up by writer Olen Steinhauer–the American spy novelist behind the Berlin Station TV series–and set into motion by Danish director Janus Metz (another TV vet), the film’s job is essentially the same as Henry’s: find out whose treachery caused the disaster, and make them pay for it. Celia’s name came up. Uh-oh.

Henry and Celia meet in an eerie restaurant supposedly located in Carmel by the Sea, one of those expense account places with ocean views and a good wine list, but without the vodka martini for which Henry was hoping. Eerie because of the gloomy amber filtered light, but also due to the lack of other customers on a weekday afternoon. The waitpersons keep changing, too.

Their banter is constantly interrupted, in Henry’s mind, by love and work flashbacks from those wonderful old days in Vienna. It becomes clear that Celia has moved on, but Henry not so much. She suggests more depth of character than he does. Methodically, steadily, like a leaky faucet, they run through a few remembrances plus a lengthy list of likely suspects: a sneaky-faced agency op named Lassiter (David Dawson); Victor, the opaque CIA station chief (Laurence Fishburne); Bill, the waffling veteran strategist (Jonathan Pryce); the slippery Iranian asset called Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka).

Overseas contacts Ernst (Jonjo O’Neill) and Leila (the actor known as Ahd) likewise appear suspicious. And who’s that wrong-looking red-haired guy sitting alone on the other side of the restaurant? Oh, it’s Treble, another spook (Michael Shaeffer). Of course Henry and Celia themselves are in contention–no truly innocent parties here. All along, Henry thinks too much about the old love affair and not enough about the business at hand.

Halfway through, our two wary spies are still sitting in that restaurant, cat-and-mousing each other. The stodgy pacing and bland, syrupy conversation are beginning to wear us down, no matter what impact they’re having on Henry and Celia. Plot wrinkles that might better have taken place onscreen are instead only referred to, reinforcing the staged artificiality of the action. The shadowy, dark settings match the gloomy nostalgic mood and flabby spoken lines. Meanwhile the camera dwells on Pine, even though Newton is the one who’s truly dwell-worthy. Wooden dialogue, waxen performances and the romantic subplot that just isn’t urgent enough. We grow weary.

English actor Newton still possesses the alert intelligence and lithe sensuality that made her work in Jefferson in Paris and W so interesting. Pine, on the other hand, finds himself facing the same sort of career dilemma as, say, Josh Brolin or Jon Hamm–that is, the transition from rugged, handsome man of action (as in Hell or High Water) to a more mature, middle-aged type, the guy who has been around the block a few times–without losing his stud-muffin street cred. 

All the Old Knives lets both actors down. A procedure needs to proceed. No thanks to writer Steinhauer or director Metz, every ounce of excitement has been drained out of this one. It lacks the story, the speeches, the thorough characterization, the pacing, the visual thrill, the works. The result is a property that would have made a tiresome stage play, turned into an even faultier film. No amount of sharpening could help it.

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