“What if we turned the Basic Instinct interrogation scene into a full movie?”
It’s a terrible premise. That scene may be infamous because of Sharon Stone’s leg cross, but it still holds 30 years later because of the intrigue, humor, and sexual tension it packs into that moment. Expanding that moment’s charged atmosphere is so besides the point that it’s practically parody.
Of course, Hollywood loves to miss the point, and it‘s likely how we got All the Old Knives, the latest in the resurgence of the steamy thriller. (Hulu’s Deep Water formally kicked off the trend a month ago.)
All the Old Knives is Amazon’s stab at the genre, starring Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton as two CIA agents and lovers investigating the Flight 127 hijacking in Austria. The trauma splits the couple up. Newton’s Celia Harrison leaves the CIA behind altogether, while Pine’s Henry Pelham remains. Eight years later, new evidence implicates Celia in the hijacking. Henry goes to interrogate her, ascertain her guilt, and potentially eliminate her. Celia and Henry meet at a fancy restaurant in Carmel, California, where she’s raising a family. Despite that, the couple proceed to flirt while recapping the events of Flight 127 and, by extension, their relationship.
The shameless references to Basic Instinct and the intense chemistry between Pine and Newton,make it difficult to focus on anything other than Celia and Henry hooking up. You imagine they’ll drink wine, tensely discussing the not-so-good old days, and then end up in Henry’s hotel room. Or they’ll end up in a bathroom stall, deciding that eight years was enough.
Neither of those scenarios plays out. Instead, All the Old Knives gives us methodical flashbacks that dig into Flight 127 and who might’ve been responsible. The flashbacks are supposed to build suspense, but they lack urgency or energy. Following the investigation is a tedious exercise because it takes us away from Henry and Celia’s interrogation (or date). The flashbacks do matter because of a third-act plot twist that is both surprising and entirely inevitable. Director Janus Metz Pedersen smartly presumes we were distracted the first time around and runs the relevant scenes back. It’s a device that aims for pathos but also reminds us how dull those scenes were the first time around.
The twist on the third-act twist is less derivative but relies too much on Celia and Henry’s underdeveloped relationship. They make a handsome couple and their love scenes are potent, but neither character is fleshed out enough for us to understand why they love each other. That would be fine (and lame) if their romance weren’t central to the film. The payoff only works if we understand the stakes of their relationship. By the time the film establishes them, we’re too far along for the genuinely sad ending to feel wholly earned.
All the Old Knives works best when it focuses solely on Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, who have the necessary sparks to ignite the screen. They build their chemistry through subtle glances and teasing smirks, shared between people who have endless comfort with each other. It’s what makes their interro-date as sexually charged as their actual love scene. (It’s a scene that might quirk your eyebrow up in a “wow, they’re really going for it” way.) They also sell the pair’s heartbreak over the split, wringing emotion out of a script that doesn’t match their commitment. Sadly, the two suffer when they’re apart, bogged down by dry investigative scenes that add little to their characters or relationship. Newton fares better, painting an uneasy portrait of a haunted woman that has you guessing about her allegiances up until the end.
All the Old Knives is aching to be a steamy romp with some spy intrigue. (Think a more serious Mr. and Mrs. Smith.) Had the film gone all in and paid off the tension between its couple, it might’ve succeeded where Deep Water missed the mark. Instead, the film tries for both hot romance and spy thriller and doesn’t stick either landing. All the Old Knives is worth the stream to see Pine and Newton play off each other, but the film doesn’t earn their chemistry. Hopefully, they’ll get another shot the next time Hollywood chooses to miss the point.
All the Old Knives is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.