Producers: Matthew Vaughn, Gillian Berrie, Claudia Vaughn, Len Blavatnik and Gregor Cameron Director: Jon S. Baird Screenplay: Noah Pink Cast: Taron Egerton, Nikita Efremov, Sofia Lebedeva, Anthony Boyle, Ben Miles, Ken Yamamura, Togo Igawa, Igor Grabuzov, Oleg Shtefanko, Ayane Nagabuchi, Rick Yune, Matthew Marsh, Kanon Nurumi, Ieva Andrejevaite, Timur Kassimkulov, Mark Khismatullin, Roger Allam and Toby Jones Distributor: Apple TV+
Here’s a video-game movie that’s good precisely because it isn’t a video-game movie, in the sense of trying to recreate the action of the game onscreen. Instead “Tetris” is a Cold War action comedy inspired by the invention of the titular game and the frenzied efforts of various people to secure the rights to it. The writer, Nick Pink, does try to mimic the game’s linking-box design with a complicated structure, including “levels” of play, and a frantic pace (while director Jon S. Baird occasionally switches to video-game graphics for amusing inserts), but one might note that a somewhat similar approach to the East-West divide of the twentieth century can be seen in a much older picture about the clash between Soviet-era communism and Western capitalist greed, Billy Wilder’s 1961 “One, Two, Three.” That Baird’s movie can bear comparison to Wilder’s says a good deal in its favor.
The two pictures share another element: a glib, fast-talking sparkplug of a protagonist. In the older film it was James Cagney, in his last major role, as C.R. McNamara, the head of Coca-Cola’s West Berlin operations. Here it’s Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, the ambitious head of struggling Bullet-Proof Software, who in the late 1980s made it his business, despite the misgivings of his banker (Rick Yune), to acquire the worldwide rights to Tetris in all possible formats. That put him into competition with Robert Stein (Toby Jones), another software specialist, who already had a foot in the door and was working in league with British media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his smugly entitled son Kevin (Anthony Boyle); it also led Rogers to seek an alliance with powerful Nintendo, its president Hiroshi Yamauchi (Togo Igawa), and his executive staff.
All of them were faced, however, with the fact that Tetris was a Russian product, invented by Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), a government employee, and that negotiations therefore involved a Soviet regime that was at the time in its death throes under beleaguered Mikael Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh), torn among true believers, those whose faith in the system was wavering, and thoroughly corrupt apparatchiks anxious to profit in any way they could. With the help of Sasha (Sofia Lebedeva), a young woman who attaches herself to him as a translator, Henk, having travelled to Russia under false pretenses, worms his way into ELORG, the Soviet agency overseeing export of computer technology, where he meets Pajitnov and his boss Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Shtefanko), who has been negotiating with Stein. Rogers’ intervention complicates things enormously, especially because Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov), a powerful party figure with intelligence connections, sees Western interest in the game as a means of enriching himself as his country implodes.
Much of this Russian-set portion of “Tetris” is exaggeration or sheer invention, and it’s here that Baird’s movie diverges from Wilder’s. The latter was a zany farce with madcap, made-up characters that could be treated with cartoonish abandon; this picture is based on real ones (at least mostly—Trifonov, who takes his name from an early Bolshevik leader, is obviously a stock villain, and Sasha just as clearly fictional), and so must deal with them more respectfully. But all of them—including Nintendo executives Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles) and Minoru Arakawa (Ken Yamamura), Rogers’ wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi) and daughter Maya (Kanon Nurumi), and Alexey’s wife Nina (Ieva Andrejevaite) and sons Dmitri (Timur Kassimkulov) and Peter (Mark Khismatullin)—are swept up in an action-packed last act, cobbled together from standard-issue espionage tropes, including vehicle chases, last-minute escapes and intervention from a deus ex Politburo (as well as some creepily sinister moments from Grabuzov and his henchmen), that hasn’t much to do with actual events but certainly ends the picture with a bang.
The movie benefits from a first-class production design by Daniel Taylor (especially impressive because it was shot in Scotland), period-proper costumes by Nat Turner, and atmospheric cinematography by Alwin Küchler. The effects by Barrie Hemsley, Jody Johnson and Marty Waters are cheesy but fun, editors Martin Walsh, Colin Goudie and Ben Mills keeps things humming, and Lorne Balfe’s score, enhanced by some well-chosen period pop tunes at critical moments (inevitably, we hear the Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities” at the close), adds some extra punch.
On the acting front, Egerton may not have the rat-a-tat energy of Cagney, but he gives Rogers the air of sympathetic desperation the character needs, while both Efremov and Shtefanko bring surprising nuance to their real-life-based Russian ones. Elsewhere the reliable Jones makes Stein as amusingly driven as Rogers, while Allam, outfitted in a grotesque fat suit, presents Maxwell as the obnoxious fraudster he was. And while Grabuzov revels in sinister smiles, his Richard Widmark-like nastiness is what the script calls for.
Whether you’re a fan of the game or not, you should find “Tetris” an entertaining Cold War romp, so long as you’re not looking for a history lesson.