Movie Review: Spy games bring out “All the Old Knives”

The gold standard for spy thrillers isn’t Sir Ian’s Fantastical Mr. Bond, James Bond. That label belongs to the gritty, patient and “real world/real consequences” human-assets spycraft as depicted in the novels of John LeCarre of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Russia House,” “Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” etc., screen adaptations so distinct and numerous as to constitute their own genre.

My favorite work of his is one that new film “All the Old Knives” resembles. “Smiley’s People,” built around LeCarre’s alter ego, the British plodder George Smiley, was turned into a TV series that emphasizes what the book is all about.

It’s just this old office drone, summoned back to “The Circus” (MI-6) to set one last trap that might “turn” his nemesis, code-named Karla. The miniseries is just Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, a blank-faced fussbudget, tracking down old colleagues and gently prodding their memories with deliberate, probing questions, never giving away the game, always circling around this or that subject over and over again, always asking for just a hint more.

So anybody expecting Chris Pine to show off gunplay and other bits of derring do as CIA spook Henry Pelham in “Knives” is sure to be disappointed. But for those who like memory games, mental traps and trip-ups, “moles,” red herrings and genuine suspects, it’s a rare treat.

Pelham has been summoned by his old Vienna Station chief (Laurence Fishburne) to get to the bottom of something we’ve seen in the films opening. There was a hijacking at Vienna airport that ended badly. No one came out alive, and no intelligence service personnel came out of it looking good.

Years have passed, and one of the hijackings planners has been captured. He says there was an inside-station source that helped the hijackers and this adds yet more shame to this major intelligence failure.

“We can’t afford the embarrassment of a prosecution,” the boss declares. Pelham must go over the list of suspects, all of whom he has history with. He must eliminate the guy who committed suicide and grill the retiree in London (Jonathan Pryce), looking for inconsistencies in his story.

And he must face a former lover because “I’ll know if she’s lying” when he “interviews her.”

Thandiwe Newton is Celia, happily married and settled in tony Carmel-by-the-Sea. But eight years before, she was on station and deep into a relationship with Henry, who had recently arrived from Moscow Station.

Henry’s London and Carmel interviews — friendly and fraught — are intercut with snippets of that horrible hijacking, scenes inside the plane with its terrified passengers and inside Vienna Station, where meetings, theories and solutions are discussed and where staff duck out to check “sources” in person or by phone.

Something that went down that day will give away the culprit.

Director Janus Metz (“Armadillo,” “Borgs vs. McEnroe”) and screenwriter Olen Steinhauer, adapting his own novel, lean into a conceit of movies of this genre — “total recall.” Celia’s memories of that day long ago are detailed, almost beyond belief. So are the more defensive recollections of her mentor, Bill (Pryce).

Pine’s Henry goes easy and he goes hard. There’s sentiment involved, fragile memories of an affair that ended in the aftermath of the hijacking debacle.

He compliments Celia. “You got out clean,” meaning from the Agency. “No one got out clean after (flight) 127,” she confesses.

The leads serve up their best poker faces when we and perhaps they know the stakes, with that whole “embarrassment of a prosecution” proviso suggesting whatever is determined, this will be resolved right now.

Newton’s having a grand run in her career’s second act, and she brings pathos to this situation, a great love from her past who is here not to just catch-up, but accuse her of treason. She brings heart to Pine’s performance as well. Stripped of the action hero requirements that dominate his career, here he’s just a guy upset at what he might know or find out about this great love from his past. She makes that “one you don’t get over” credible.

There’s an inevitability to such movies, an expectation that expectations will be tripped up, and “All the Old Knives” manages those third act twists with skill, if not sizzle.

But for a movie built on probing conversations, details and relationships, it’s pretty good. Not in the LeCarre class, but imitation is the sincerest form of spycraft flattery.

Rating: R for sexuality/nudity, violence and language.

Cast: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce.

Credits: Directed by Janus Metz, scripted by Olen Steinhauer, based his novel. An Amazon Studios release on Amazon Prime.

Running time: 1:41

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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