The first line of Amazon’s spy thriller “All the Old Knives” hints at the troubles to come: “Something has gone terribly amiss.”
At one point Kate Winslet, Michelle Williams, and Idris Elba were all rumored to be attached, but fell away over the years. So how, exactly, did Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton get talked into what feels like an early-aughts, made-for-cable movie?
A stiffly somber Pine, entombed in turtlenecks and long scarves, is introduced like he’s in one of those perfume commercials celebrities try to keep hidden overseas. Despite a few moments of tense intrigue, the rest of the film too often follows suit.
Most of the action hinges on an event that took place several years ago. In flashback, we see shockwaves ripple through the CIA’s office in Vienna, as agency heads Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) and Compton (Jonathan Pryce) share news of a violent airplane hijacking by Chechen rebels.
Eight years later, Wallinger learns that a mole was involved, and asks agent Henry Pelham (Pine) to reopen the case. As Henry travels around interviewing his colleagues, the film intermittently returns to the past to see how the hijacking unfolded from various perspectives.
He starts his search for the mole by interrogating a retired Compton, who is (we assume) righteously outraged. Compton gave his life to the agency, he reminds his subordinate, and the fateful day in question has deeply impacted the rest of his life.
The same, it seems, holds true for former agent Celia Harrison (Newton) who, soon after the hijacking, left the agency, Austria, and Pelham himself, since he happened to be her professional and personal partner at the time. Because she never gave him an explanation, much of the movie is simply a catch-up conversation, which takes place in a stark seaside restaurant in California.
Though Pelham teases his old girlfriend about her settled life in Carmel, with a husband and children, he’s clearly still hurt and confused by her abandonment. But aside from some steamy flashbacks between them, too much of the action is of the telling, rather than showing, variety.
Olen Steinhauer has adapted his own book. As the author of several bestselling spy novels and creator of the TV series “Berlin Station,” he should have the experience to make a story feel cinematic, but lengthy conversations and descriptions that might jump out on a page tend to land inertly onscreen.
Director Janus Metz doesn’t open the by-the-numbers script much further. In fact, he keeps a very tight rein on every scene. This does build in some thoughtful suspense, especially toward the end, but prosaic visuals, a portentous score (by Jon Ekstrand and Rebekka Karijord), and flashes of cheerfully gratuitous nudity all suggest the filmmakers were aiming to create streaming filler rather than big-screen prestige.
That’s a shame, because there’s actually talent to burn here, from cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“A Quiet Place”) to production designer Marcus Rowland (“Rocketman”). Metz himself made 2017’s nuanced “Borg vs. McEnroe,” and he’s got a top-flight cast at his disposal. Fishburne and Pryce bring some gravitas, but both are pushed aside with head-spinning speed.
A lovely Newton tries to kickstart the romance between Celia and Henry, her ever-emotive expressions hinting at hidden loss. But Pine is among those leading men — like Brad Pitt and Jake Gyllenhaal, among others — who shine brightest in character roles. Here he’s been directed into a series of poses, rather than a fully-felt performance, and though he and Newton generate a few sparks, they lack the voltage needed to revive their muted dinner and long-ago love story.
In fairness, “All the Old Knives” does accomplish its basic goal: It’s not appointment viewing, but it’ll serve as an adequate backdrop if you come across it at the end of a long day. Why, given all its potential, wasn’t the bar set higher? That, alas, remains the most noteworthy mystery of all.
“All the Old Knives” opens April 8 in US theaters and on Prime Video.