All the Old Knives

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All the Old Knives opens with a horrifying act that calls to mind real-life events like Sept. 11. A group of terrorists hijacks an airplane, killing everyone on board. The tragedy is particularly devastating for two FBI agents, Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who were trying to prevent a catastrophe of that sort from happening. They were also lovers whose relationship abruptly ended that same day, crushed under the weight of guilt and grief.

Eight years later, Henry's superior, Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), drops a bit of shocking news on him. Newly discovered information suggests that someone within the agency was disloyal, feeding intel to those terrorists. Henry is assigned to look into this, an act that entails grilling former colleague Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and, naturally, Celia. He meets the latter at a fancy restaurant in Carmel, California. She's married now, but the heat between them is still there.

The setup to All the Old Knives is promising. Once the story reunites Henry and Celia, though, it quickly falls apart. The story is told almost completely in flashback. Events from the day of the killing are recalled as the two sit in that restaurant. Henry met with Bill before reuniting with Celia, so there are flashbacks to their meeting as he explains it to her. Events from the now-dissolved couple's romance come up as they talk, leading to flashbacks of those events, too.

There are flashbacks within flashbacks. At one point, there's a dream sequence in a flashback. Telling the story out of order and with the key elements jumbled prevents suspense from being built. Director Janus Metz is never able to create the necessary momentum that would make us hang on each new development. That undermines the quest to find the traitor, as well as the matter of whether Henry and Celia will act upon their clearly rekindled feelings.

The structure additionally makes All the Old Knives very confusing. The movie jumps around in time so much that it becomes disorienting. I gave up trying to follow the plot after the first hour because it was an exercise in futility. Olen Steinhauer wrote the screenplay, based on his own novel. He doesn't seem to understand that you can't necessarily structure a movie the same way you structure a book. On the page, there can be descriptors and internal monologues. Without such elements, you get a talky film that's little more than lots of scenes where two people sit around explaining what happened in the past. Somehow, despite getting hopelessly lost, I was still right about the plot's big twist, which I surmised in the first ten minutes.

The other half of the picture is supposed to be an erotic tale. Since Celia is married, we're left to wonder if she will cross a line with Henry. Pine and Newton are certainly good in their roles, and they get a surprisingly graphic sex scene together (in flashback, of course). Romantic complications seem a tad trivial amid a larger story about terrorism, however. Maybe the intent was to have the romance be up-front and to explore how a tragedy impacted it. Either way, the balance isn't correct, rendering the interpersonal material intrusive when rubbing against the weightier stuff.

All the Old Knives is a good-looking picture and the cast is obviously impressive. A muddled storytelling style drags those positive qualities down. The film is 101 minutes long. After the first 65, I ceased caring about any of it.

out of four

All the Old Knives is rated R for sexuality/nudity, violence, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.