Fans of Chris Pine find themselves with an embarrassment of riches this weekend, with All the Old Knives hitting Prime Video on Friday and The Contractor, released last weekend, still fresh on VOD and in theaters. As a fan of Pine—he’s perfectly serviceable as Captain Kirk and Wonder Woman’s boyfriend, though I prefer him a little grubbier in movies like Hell or High Water, Stretch, and Horrible Bosses 2—I figured I’d make a night of it and watch both in one evening.
All the Old Knives was on tap first. Pine stars as Henry Pelham, a CIA field operative stationed in Vienna who watches in horror with the rest of his colleagues, including lover Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), as a group of terrorists kills everyone aboard a Turkish airliner. Eight years later, an investigation into the operation is reopened after the Chechen mastermind is captured by the United States. Under interrogation, he tells the Americans that he had a source inside the agency’s Austrian shop; Pelham is assigned by station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) to find the mole.
All the Old Knives plays out like a simplified John Le Carré story. It’s a spy thriller without anything in the way of action, just a lot of people sitting around, talking, feeling each other out. Pelham’s trying to figure out why Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), who has retired to London, had an Iranian number in his call logs. Was he the mole? Was he set up by his assistant, Celia? Is there something deeper at play?
When I say it’s “people sitting around, talking,” I don’t mean that dismissively, just descriptively. The action largely cuts between a restaurant table in California wine country, where Pelham interrogates Harrison, and Vienna eight years prior, where we piece together what happened and who betrayed the agency. The screenplay by Olen Steinhauer, adapted from his own novel, is intricate without being confusing, doling out just enough information to keep audience and characters alike on their toes. Everyone here has secrets, and one of the joys of the film is watching them get teased out.
The other joy, simply, is watching great actors go to work. Director Janus Metz made the most of COVID-era shooting restrictions; there’s a reason that for so much of this film—which was shot at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021—only two or three people are onscreen at any given time. The smaller scale allows him to focus more on the expressiveness of the actors under his care. Newton and Pine have a spark between them: she’s guarded around him, understanding he’s there to trip her up; he’s wounded by her, hurt that she left him without a word of explanation following the terrorist attack. Her eyes are tired: is it eight years and two kids, or something more? His eyes are probing: is he on to her and trying to catch her in a lie, or genuine in his questions?
There’s a version of this film—one made by a previous version of Hollywood, probably—larded up with shootouts and chase sequences introduced in an effort to make this picture more palatable to the popcorn crowd. But attracting that audience with ads highlighting explosions and gunplay would come at the expense of what makes this taut little 100-minute thriller work. And that’d be a shame. Better to find a smaller, more discerning audience on Amazon’s Prime Video service than to try to trick the masses into seeing something a bit quieter, a bit more still, by making it more frenetic.
The Contractor is closer to what that imagined version of All the Old Knives would look like. Here’s a picture that has twists and turns, sure, but most importantly, it also has gunplay and explosions that you can put in a trailer and convince people it’s worth taking a trip to the theater or shelling out $20 on VOD for.
In this picture Pine is not a CIA agent but a retired special forces soldier, James Harper, who is forced out after a new commanding officer discovers his body is flush with HGH and other drugs designed to help him overcome the wounds he’s suffered through the years. Saddled with mounting bills and deprived of his retirement and health care, he joins up with a private contracting firm that employs his old buddy, Mike (Ben Foster), and is run by Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland).
Rusty assures James that they’re the good guys, working directly under the president, trying to stop terrorists from taking out untold millions with a new flu variant. Except—as you may have seen in the advertisements so I don’t think I’m spoiling much here—all is not quite as it seems. Rusty turns against his new recruit when a mission goes sideways. And the contractor has to go on the run.
Here’s a film with a great cast—Pine is reteaming with Foster for the first time since Hell or High Water; Sutherland is always an underappreciated screen presence; and the great Eddie Marsan shows up for a scene near the end of the picture—that is less interested in letting that cast go to work than trying to entice audiences with action thrills. The plot is faintly ludicrous, the emotional beats don’t really land, and the whole thing feels both bloated and rushed, despite clocking it at just 103 minutes.
And all that would be okay if the action sequences were more than “serviceable,” if this were the pure action movie promised audiences with lines like “from the producer of John Wick” in the ads. I mean: the action scenes are fine! When James and Mike’s team gets into a shootout with a German SWAT-equivalent, the action is legible, there’s no confusion as to what’s happening or why. This isn’t chaos cinema. It’s a bit better than prestige TV, I suppose. Not great. Just … fine.
But All the Old Knives is much better—and so much better for not trying to force action in where it doesn’t quite fit. So, if you’ve only time for one Chris Pine movie on streaming or VOD this weekend, that’s the one to go with.