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All the Old Knives
Directed by Janus Metz
Written by Olen Steinhauer
Starring Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton and Laurence Fishburne
Classification R; 101 minutes
Streaming on Prime Video starting April 8
Directed by Tarik Saleh
Written by J.P. Davis
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Kiefer Sutherland
Classification R; 103 minutes
Streaming on Prime Video starting April 29
Two new thrillers, both starring Chris Pine and both premiering straight to Prime Video this month, accidentally answer a question that has been rattling around my head for the past two years: What’s happened to the contemporary big-screen action star? The answer, as provided by All the Old Knives and The Contractor: Action stars are still big – it’s just the pictures that got small.
Maybe that “big” should be amended to “big business,” because obviously audiences are hoovering up these types of movies if streamers are still paying for them. Or perhaps giants like Prime Video are just picking up scraps (The Contractor was originally intended to open exclusively in theatres). Whatever the case, there is a new or perhaps newly refined formula for most thrillers made outside the Marvel/[insert intellectual property here] cinematic universe: Recognizable Star + Familiar Supporting Players + Gunfire + Plot Twists = $$$$?
Practically, this means that an at-home double bill of All the Old Knives and The Contractor will do two things for you: provide a resolutely mediocre evening of distraction that will vacate your mind as soon as you go to sleep, and make you feel pretty bad about Chris Pine’s career.
As one of the more intriguing, charismatic and adventurous of the Four Hollywood Chrises (the others would be Hemsworth, Pratt and Evans), Pine seems like a character actor trapped in the chiselled torso and flawless cheekbones of a Hollywood god. Every time that Pine saunters outside of his lead-hero comfort zone – or, rather, what the industry expects that zone to be – the guy scores: Smokin’ Aces, Stretch, Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series.
Even the Wonder Woman films allowed Pine to proudly, cheekily take on the sidekick role. The actor is obviously having a much better time letting Gal Gadot take out the thugs than he is wincing through the motions of snooze-y hero roles in The Finest Hours and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. I retain a tremendous soft spot for Pine’s work in the rebooted Star Trek films, but even there the star feels straitjacketed, jealous of the wry fun that his co-stars Simon Pegg and Karl Urban seem to be having in the margins.
So: I’m glad that Pine is still getting leading-man work between Trek enterprises, and even an opportunity to get extremely close to Oscar glory with Hell or High Water. But All the Old Knives and The Contractor prove that the star is currently getting short shrift. And the decision for both movies to bypass big theatrical openings speaks to a shift in not only Pine’s career, but those of his contemporary Chrises and really any actor who studio executives and audiences just a decade ago considered a sure thing. Hollywood simply doesn’t know what to do with what was once an action film’s top selling point: its leading man.
Of Pine’s two new projects, All the Old Knives at least has the clear edge. A slow-burn spy tale focusing on two CIA agents/former lovers (Pine and Thandiwe Newton) who reunite to rehash a long-ago botched mission, Knives has just enough expensive style, steamy sex and wild plot contrivances to hold your attention. As directed by Janus Metz (Borg vs. McEnroe) and written by Olen Steinhauer, who adapts his own novel, the thriller is sleek and occasionally beautiful in its Carmel-By-the-Sea scenery. But too frequently it tries to convince its audience that it is far smarter than it actually is.
Those who have never ever before seen a single espionage flick might surrender to the film’s third-act switcheroo, but even rookies will point out Steinhauer’s many plot holes. The decent trick of the movie is that no leaps of logic are so large as to distract from how smooth Pine and Newton are as professional manipulators. But, again, the film will evaporate from your mind the minute the end credits roll.
The same – but also much less – can be said of The Contractor, a mean but not overly lean look at America’s military-to-mercenary pipeline. Here, Pine reunites with his Hell or High Water co-star Ben Foster as a pair of ex-army men looking to keep their families afloat in a country that no longer values their service. The solution that Pine’s hero finds: lucrative overseas black-ops work for a shady outfit headed by a shadier mastermind (played with intimidating gruffness by Kiefer Sutherland).
Given that director Tarik Saleh’s film isn’t sponsored by Blackwater, you can guess where things go: deception, death, revenge, all laced with a criticism of the military-industrial complex that is too pointedly obvious to leave a mark. While his character is intended to be lost and powerless, Pine seems adrift in another way, too – a star without a proper star vehicle. It is a backwards blessing that both The Contractor and All the Old Knives skipped cinemas – projected any larger, and the films’ myriad deficits would have killed a lesser career.
All isn’t lost for Pine, though: the actor has a handful of promising productions ahead of him, including the buzzy thriller Don’t Worry Darling, and Newsflash, in which he’s set to play Walter Cronkite (!). Those could end up on streaming, but I highly doubt that his upcoming fourth Star Trek film will take that route, giving Pine’s name just that much more of a marquee push – and giving hope to Chrises everywhere. But these days, you also never know.
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