The Pieces Of Taron Egerton’s Thriller Fail To Fit Together [SXSW]
Mar 17, 2023
One of the more fun challenges for any writer must be figuring out the narrowest possible scope to capture the broadest possible moment in history. Take Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City,” for example. The recently un-greenlit series remains a Hollywood favorite because Larson used a lurid series of events – the rise and fall of serial killer H.H. Holmes – as a window into turn-of-the-century America and the rising tide of modernity. On paper, Jon S. Baird’s “Tetris” shares a similar goal, framing the fall of communist Russia through a prolonged battle for the rights over one video game. It’s a clever setup, but unlike “The Devil in the White City,” the execution leaves much to be desired.
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The first time Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) plays “Tetris,” it’s love at first sight. That is why Henk’s company is willing to sign predatory loan terms with his bank to purchase the Japanese distribution rights from Russian developers. Henk has big plans for his new game; he even muscles his way into a meeting with the leadership team at Nintendo, who make him one of the first men in the world to see the Nintendo Game Boy. Henk believes that if he can convince Nintendo to bundle the Game Boy with Tetris at launch, both companies could make millions of dollars and introduce video games to untapped markets.
There’s only one problem: the Russian intelligence services. With Tetris poised to make millions worldwide, the Russian technologists who licensed the game are both hungry for a piece of the pie and wary of the destabilizing impact this sale could have on communism itself. To secure an ironclad contract for Nintendo – and win the trust of Tetris developer Alexy Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) – Henk must risk running afoul of the KGB as he travels to Russia to wrap up the negotiations himself. But the closer Henk gets to closing a deal, the more desperate his adversaries become, leading to a battle of intrigue in the board rooms of Moscow.
To get to the real-time negotiations as quickly as possible, “Tetris” opens with a prolonged information dump. Henk tells his banker the major players in the video game distribution market – including programmers, oligarchs, and media moguls – as part of his pitch for seed money for the Nintendo video game cartridges. But “Tetris” fails to set the stage for the 1980s video game scene. We meet executives at Nintendo and are treated to clips from other console games, but the screenplay often treats the groundbreaking nature of Tetris as a statement of fact. Without a clear and compelling argument for the shift in the rising industry, the game begins to feel like an 8-bit McGuffin right out of the gate.
This might have been less of a problem if the film was a little less serious overall, but given the political setting of the movie, “Tetris” seems to want to avoid being too playful. At the same time, that playfulness results in many of the film’s best moments. One standout is a chiptune soundtrack that toys with the first six notes of the video game theme in varying moods. Even if this instrumentation adds an immediate lightness to the tone, as the score allows the film to move with a surprising amount of lightness and energy. “Tetris” also adopts other video game flourishes, including 8-bit animations for title cards and NES damage effects overlaying a climactic car chase. These touches sometimes feel disconnected from the movie around them, but the result is still undeniably fun.
But what works best visually for the film only sometimes serves the narrative. “Tetris” hits its stride in the periods where it leans into the desperation of a dying empire. In one scene, the Russian bureaucrat puts two competing bidders in different rooms of the same building, using their eagerness to close a deal as leverage and information. But for every scene of manipulation, we have several more steeped in broad sentiment and shapeless pro-Western idealism. “Tetris” wants to present itself as a proxy war for the future of Russia, but the narrative resolutions are more “The Saint” than “The Americans.”
None of this is the fault of the cast. Henk Rogers may be a bland protagonist – his biggest area for improvement is that he cares too much – but Edgerton remains a dynamic screen presence (and an early contender for Best Mustache of 2023). Meanwhile, Russian actor Igor Grabuzov finds a little bit of Jeffrey Combs in his role as a menacing and corrupt politician. Inasmuch as “Tetris” can muster up any real threats against Henk and his colleagues, Grabuzov is a perfect vehicle for thinly veiled threats. This cast is consistently watchable, keeping the audience moving through the movie long after the plot’s intrigue wears off.
“Tetris” feels like a movie unsure of how to get the most out of its interesting story. There’s a lot of potential in a legal thriller set in the days before German reunification and the end of the Cold War, just as there’s potential in a colorful heist movie that upends the formula and makes the illegal legal. But “Tetris” fails to thread a particularly tricky needle, resulting in a movie that feels more like a failed ‘90s blockbuster than anything else. And the world does need more original movies that try to balance prestige and mass entertainment; perhaps in a nod to its source material, “Tetris” can never quite get the pieces to fit together just right. [C+]
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