TENET – Review
Hopes for jump-starting the blockbuster movie season delayed by a summer shut-down largely rest on TENET, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi spy thriller. The description of the film certainly sounds like it would do the trick – a promised a mix of INCEPTION’s intellectually intriguing concept and THE DARK KNIGHT’s technically dazzling action thrills. While we do get the technical dazzle and an intriguing concept, TENET is more a mixed bag overall, and far from one of Nolan’s best.
Christopher Nolan is an amazing filmmaker, an auteur whose best works include MEMENTO, INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT. But not every Nolan has worked, and there are several that did not quite reach their potential. TENET is among this latter group, unfortunately.
Action fans, however, will be thoroughly entertained, even though those who relish the mind-twisting puzzles the director often serves up will feel more frustration. The action starts immediately, with John John David Washington’s unnamed special-ops agent coming in to thwart attempted assassination of a leader, maybe a president, during a classical music concert at a Russian opera house. The sequence wraps up by introducing us to a ticking-time bomb scenario that involves a kind of time travel called inversion, in which events run backwards among other things. The mission also introduces the Protagonist to a code phrase using the word “tenet,” and a host of characters who may or may not be allies or enemies, including a fixer named Neil (Robert Pattinson), as well as a Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his beautiful estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and a wealthy contact played by Michael Caine.
There is plenty of James Bond references in this spy thriller, complete with expensive suits, yachts, speed boats, beautiful women, billionaire lifestyle, as well as the witty quips. TENET mixes this throw-back fun with the breathlessly-fast action thriller sci-fi sequences that are cutting-edge contemporary.
The film is technically excellent, with jaw-dropping action and clever plot twists. Action fans should be more that delighted with all that, which is brilliantly executed. The scenes where characters are “inverted” are particularly outstanding The film delivers enough information about what is happening – eventually – to understand what is going on, but audiences could also just lean back and go along for the movie magic ride. For the audiences who want to figure out the puzzle, the situation is less satisfying.
One of the most frustrating things about this film is there in the first scenes, where muddy sound that muffles dialog, which is delivered at a rapid-fire pace that matches the explosion of action that starts the film. Like INCEPTION, the technology that allows the characters to “invert” time is a black box but those who like the puzzle solving would like to hear more about the premise Nolan is offering. Sadly, between the ultra-fast delivery and mixed accents, plus a background sound of explosions, one can hardly make out what is being said. For many action films, what is said hardly matters but one expects it to matter in a Nolan film.
Besides the sound issue, another challenge is the casting. The central pair in this action-driven spy tale is John David Washington and Robert Pattinson While both actors have turned in nice performances in past roles, not much chemistry every develops between them, and they go from action sequence to sequence with just a few traded quips. John David Washington’s damped-down acting style was fine in BLACKKKLANSMAN but for TENET’s unnamed Protagonist something more emotionally involving is needed. A better choice would have been an actor who could give more subtext, more nuance, would have drawn us into the character more, rather than Washington’s square-jawed noble hero. John David Washington is the son of Denzel Washington, but the father would have been a better fit for the role from an acting perspective, The younger Washington is good looking and has the physique for the hero role but his acting style seems flat here. Pattinson has done some good work in many films but here he is a one-note character, a handsome, smiling cipher who provides whatever backup or miracle fix is needed by Washington’s hero character.
The acting sparks are provided by TENET’s outstanding supporting cast, who offer the most interesting characters and performances. Michael Caine’s brief appearance is memorable, and a nice nod to the Batman films. The best good-and-evil struggle is between Kenneth Branagh’s arms dealer and his estranged wife played by the gifted, under-appreciated Elizabeth Debicki, an actress who is beautiful enough to be a “Bond girl” surrogate and talented enough to steal most scenes. Scenes between Branagh and Debicki just crackle with tension and emotion, a battle of acting talents that are just thrilling to watch.
TENET is a big action film, and therefore is best seen on a big screen, the kind of movie made for that viewing experience. As action entertainment, TENET is good enticement to draw film-goers out to theaters and beats most in that genre. But for serious Christopher Nolan fans who relish the director’s intelligence and intriguing style of films, and are hoping for a repeat of INCEPTION’s magic, TENET doesn’t quite hit the mark. TENET opens Thursday, September 3, in multiple theaters.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars