An unlikely combination of The Social Network and Argo, Jon S. Baird’s Tetris keenly and entertainingly fills in the gap of mid-budget adult-oriented dramas sorely missing from the 2023 theatrical landscape.
Taron Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, a fledgling video-game designer and intrapreneur looking for his big break in 1988. At a Las Vegas convention, he discovers the video game Tetris, for which he purchases the Japanese video game rights. Meanwhile, billionaire Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) look to purchase the rights as well.
Henk travels illegally to Russia to talk with Tetris creator Alexy Pajtinov (Nikita Yefremov) and his bosses to negotiate handheld gaming rights, which he is brokering on behalf of Nintendo and their new Game Boy. As the political and economic landscape of the USSR is in flux, Henk must work with Alexy to get Tetris out of the USSR as well as make it out alive themselves.
As is the case with most true stories, you can take the film version with a large grain of salt. Yes, there are obviously some backhanded dealings between bureaucrats and shady operators, but the film acts like everyone is on the verge of a violent death at any moment. This adds to the tension of the story, but it’s a foregone conclusion on what actually happens. It’s difficult to dramatize a fight over licensing rights, so the film has to have some other sources of tension. It doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Henk has his own financial issues which the licensing will solve, but his friendship with Alexy is the driving force.
More than anything, this is a film that is rarely being made these days. 2023 filmmaking is either in the extreme of large-budgeted potential blockbuster based on existing material, or a small independent film that hopefully catches the zeitgeist and makes a profit. Tetris lands in that wonderful middle ground. This is a film made for adults, featuring adult language, but without the bells and whistles of magnificent scope or serialized film storytelling. It’s a simple story told well. Tetris is not revolutionary, it’s just filling a film gap the world has been needing.
Egerton is as reliable as ever, despite not having a ton of substance in the character of Henk. His defining characteristic is his tenacity, which can get a bit overbearing. Regardless, Egerton gives a mostly likeable, charismatic performance. Yefremov is more impressive as a man filled with internal conflict between his future and his country. With his first English-language film, he casts a memorable figure layered with empathy.
Allam and Boyle have some interesting bits of villainy, but with different perspectives. Allam’s booming baritone and comic overacting suit the character well. Boyle is the stock greasy son of a powerful man, but with a bit more color than you would expect. Toby Jones shows up for a few scenes, but his character is vastly underwritten for what his role in the story ends up being.
Baird peppers the film with 8-bit interludes and chapters illustrated like the video game. This flair is consistent throughout the film, and even transfers to the real world during a car chase. It isn’t particularly original, but it is something to keep your attention during parts of the film that would otherwise drag.
The mid-budget adult drama is in short supply, and Tetris does a fine job of filling the gap. Don’t overthink the reality of the situation, and enjoy the film for what it is…entertainment.
Tetris opens on Friday, March 31st on AppleTV+
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