A particularly nasty airline hijacking in Vienna left every passenger and crew member dead, all the terrorists, too. That was eight years ago. Now the CIA has learned that someone in its station there was aiding the terrorists. Who was it? Or is this information actually misinformation, meant to confuse the agency?
Either way, the matter needs to be resolved. No one in “All the Old Knives” ever actually says “terminate with extreme prejudice.” No one has to. It’s simply, or not so simply, understood.
“Knives” starts streaming on Amazon Prime Friday. It also opens at the Kendall Square.
If the set-up sounds like an invitation to narrative trickiness, that’s because it is. “Knives” is to chronology as origami is to paper. For the first two-thirds of its 101-minute length, the Danish director Janus Metz handles the involutions and convolutions and all the other ‘volutions with real proficiency. There’s a lot for viewers to keep straight. Metz sees to it that they do. This can’t have been easy.
It helps that all the temporal jumping around coincides with a fair amount of geographic jumping around: London, Moscow, Washington, Carmel, Calif., and Vienna, of course. These are all attractive locations. If one of them doesn’t seem to belong on the list, well, let’s just say its presence has nothing to do with tee times at Pebble Beach.
It helps even more that “All the Old Knives” has such a strong set of leads. Chris Pine has a touch of world weariness here that nicely offsets the per-usual smoldery good looks and easy arrogance. How could he and Thandiwe Newton, as a fellow analyst, not fall in love? Their affair makes “Knives” as much romance as thriller — not that anything’s as thrilling as romance, especially when it’s as intense as theirs.
Laurence Fishburne, as head of the Vienna station, is his usual Laurence Fishburne self. This means a blend of formidability and restraint. Fishburne’s a lion tamer confident enough to turn his back on his cats — or, as events require, roar right back at them. Jonathan Pryce, as his deputy, is a very different proposition. There’s something slightly dubious about his character. But dubiousness is what spies do for a living — and red herrings is what movies like “Knives” feast on.
The filmmaking is stylish yet impersonal — or can true style be impersonal? Maybe that’s why proficiency is a better word. A general slickness obtains. Slickness can be appealing. It can also be phony. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Here it’s mostly appealing, but less so as the plot further twistifies and the phoniness quotient rises. “Moscow was brutal,” Pine’s character says, “but I loved my job.” “Knives” is the sort of movie where people say things like that. Carmel, it turns out, can be brutal, too, though the food and the views are a whole lot nicer.
ALL THE OLD KNIVES
Directed by Janus Metz. Written by Olen Steinhauer; based on his novel. Starring Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce. At Kendall Square and streaming on Amazon Prime. 101 minutes. R (sexuality/nudity, violence, language. In English, German, Russian, and Arabic, with subtitles).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.