At some point while watching “All the Old Knives,” viewers will likely have an unfortunate realization — the film continuously cuts between the present-day dinner of CIA spy Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and his former coworker and lover, Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), and the agency’s unsuccessful handling of the catastrophic hijacking of Royal Jordanian Flight 127. The film perpetually dives into the history of its flat, unexciting central romance and a tragedy with low emotional stakes, jumping between the two underwhelming storylines without the potential to pick up any speed.
“All the Old Knives” is an espionage thriller which follows Henry Pelham on a mission to find the mole who sabotaged Flight 127. His pursuit of the truth brings him to California to meet with Celia, who had access to her boss’s phone, which made a call to Iran during the crisis. Reunited over dinner for the first time since Celia’s hurried retirement following the disaster, the two piece together the past to try to uncover the truth behind the sabotage and their separation. The film isn’t completely void of merit, but there is very little to like.
The story is dry throughout, and the raunchy 2-minute sex scene — unsurprisingly but disappointingly the most shocking moment of the film — doesn’t change that. This scene, like many other depictions of the couple’s romantic past, fails to keep audiences invested in the leading pair. Viewers never learn enough about Henry or Celia to empathize with them. Given the characters’ lack of development, watching flashbacks to the couple’s relationship feels as if one is merely watching Pine and Newton interact as actors rather than as the characters themselves.
The film never delves into why the two were in love, nor explores the emotional nuances of their relationship and the effects of Celia’s leaving. There’s absolutely nothing exciting about this vital facet of the story, and none of the gratuitous attempts to spice up the relationship are enough to make up for its nonexistent foundation. Because the film’s final twist relies on audiences’ interest in the couple’s history in order to be effective, the film’s climax falls flat on its face as well.
Disappointingly, the main conflict is similarly dull. The storyline about finding the mole who communicated with the terrorists aboard the plane suffers for the same reasons the love story does: too little is shown about the devastating effects of the disaster. The impact the failure had on the families of the victims and the CIA members is implied and mentioned, but never elaborated on in a significant or believable way.
Though devastating, it is impossible to care about the fictional hijacking without tying the emotional consequences to its main characters. It seems as though the film forgets to do this and attempts to retroactively fill in the blanks by haphazardly throwing in a couple disjointed explanations. It’s simply not enough; not only does the film fail to make audiences care about Flight 127, but it’s confusing whether the characters do either.
The most redeeming quality of “All the Old Knives” is its acting, which is still quite lackluster. Pine and Newton do their best to inject chemistry into their onscreen relationship, but their attempts are not supported by the script — only so much depth can be brought to shallow writing. Though the pair’s performances can’t substitute poor story and dialogue, some enjoyment can be derived from watching Pine and Newton share a scene, as underwhelming as that scene may be. The actors of “All the Old Knives” are a constant reminder of the film’s lost potential.
A story built upon a minimal outline and crumbling central romance, the weak impression left by “All the Old Knives” won’t last for long.