Hijacked plane flights are all in a day’s work for the Vienna-stationed CIA analysts and agents of All the Old Knives. Provided with backchannel chatter on the likelihood of such incidents, they dispassionately dig through data or work with their confidential informants. If they cannot deter violence, they can defuse it … or so they believe until the day extremists take over a Turkish airline and eventually gas everyone onboard — including themselves.
In the fallout, some team members chose a path of perfunctory promotions, like clandestine case officer extraordinaire Henry Pelham (Chris Pine). One took his own life out of guilt. Some left the business altogether, like retiring senior analyst Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and his protege, Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), with whom Pelham was romantically involved and who suddenly, suspiciously, left the spy trade right after everything spun sideways.
Eight years later, the Flight 127 hijacking remains a dark mark on the survivors’ souls and the otherwise spotless record of Vienna station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne). So when word arrives that a captured asset with ties to the tragedy insists the Vienna office provided inside-job assistance, Vick tasks Henry to ferret out the mole without “the embarrassment of prosecution” and all the nasty wet work that implies. Bill has suspicious phone logs that never really fell under deep scrutiny. Then there’s the matter of Celia’s swift departure. “Do you still carry a torch?” Vick asks Henry. “A torch can’t burn for eight years without oxygen, Vick.”
Yes, there are overwritten groaners in Knives, which streams on Amazon Prime Video and opens in select theaters Friday (including Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema). Adapting from his own novel, Oleg Steinhauer struggles to streamline the story and clearly justify a jumbled chronology that likely played better on paper. During a wine-country dinner from which only one (or perhaps neither) will walk away alive, early exchanges between Henry and Celia resemble those of estranged colleagues and not lovers whose sweaty-supernova trysts regularly burn up the screen in flashbacks. (It’s certainly been a long time since bodies as famous as Pine’s and Newton’s pumped in such vigorous, sustained sexual synchronicity.)
Eventually, though, Knives finds its purpose in patiently dismantling a nesting doll of reliably unreliable narrators — embodied by a cast capable enough to compel you with the mystery at hand and mostly through glances that are simultaneously suspicious and smoldering. Even if it’s not quite as polished as these presentations, Knives fits right into the dad-brand corner of Amazon Prime Video’s offerings alongside Without Remorse, Jack Ryan and Reacher.
Save a few scenes, this is mostly a two-hander (and two-sheeter) between Pine and Newton. Setting aside the clumsily expository amuse-bouche of the meal they share, this duo effectively dances around their characters’ dashed (but not dead) attraction — neither backing down from a chance to conversationally cut the other slowly, painfully, deeply. Knives is strongest when blurring the lines between Henry and Celia’s mutual intimacy and interrogation, allowing certain confessions to feel like gambits for a further trap, and depicting how their estrangement became as much about the entanglements they never felt comfortable addressing with one another. Meanwhile, director Janus Metz’s smart blocking and shrewd direction of the pair has us perpetually wondering just who’s running whom at this suspiciously uncrowded swanky bistro. Metz also makes good use of symbolic sound design, like the connotative freedom of an uncapped Coke bottle and how the otherwise refreshing sound decays into a sort of moral rot.
Beyond the hijacking, Knives is not a film of physical violence. Any further thin rivulet of blood serves mostly as a reminder, and rejoinder, to the futile dream of freer living held by the person from whom it’s drawn. And while one major development isn’t exactly unpredictable, it’s still engaging thanks to an emotional wrinkle that also centers all the atypical contemporary eroticism on display; this is not unlike a John le Carré novel with Fabio on the cover (or perhaps just Pine’s flowing locks circa the film’s 2012). Even as a truncated timetable leaves only so much room for nuanced flavor, Knives still carves out a sturdy slice of spy-game intrigue.