Review by C.J. Bunce
Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the surprise is how intriguing and suspenseful it can be, too. It all plays out in Tetris, a real-life Atomic Blonde meets The Courier, in the vein of espionage stories like The PEZ Outlaw and Muppets in Moscow, and the ultimate video game Retro Fix like the documentaries High Score, Atari: Game Over, and the treasure trove book Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon. Those breathtaking spy movie thrills you were looking for in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy all come to life in the new Apple TV movie, and as a bonus, it’s about a video game and all the techie nostalgia you could hope for.
But on paper, it doesn’t sound all that promising: A Dutch American ex patriate in Japan tries to negotiate the rights to the new video game Tetris from the communist Russian government just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But add in some back-and-forth scheming with Nintendo, the secret reveal of a new thing called Game Boy, and a competitor funneling bribes to KGB agents, death threats and close (and not-so-close) life-or-death escapes, and you have the year’s best action thriller yet.
Tetris stars Taron Egerton (Kingsman series, Rocketman) as Henk Rogers, bringing some of his best acting chops to a movie so far, as the businessman who first tried to secure arcade, console, PC, and handheld rights to the simple stacking game that was on its way to everyone’s home computer back in 1989 (and under their Christmas trees in Nintendo Game Boys). Egerton and the cast are not only in vintage-styled attire and sets, Moscow looks like Moscow in the 1980s. It’s the ultimate twist on a video game tie-in, and it’s a bit ironic that it’s coming to audiences via another legacy PC outfit, Apple. Even Atari enters the mix before the movie ends.
Tetris features chapter design art imagery that will take you back to the pixilated origins of video games, and this design framework cleverly works its way into a climactic car chase scene at film’s end.
The movie co-stars Toby Jones (Captain America, The Hunger Games) as Robert Stein (a rights procurer that double crosses Rogers), Ben Miles (Zen, Andor) as Nintendo’s counsel, Nikita Efremov (Londongrad) as game developer Alexey Pajitnov, Ukrainian actor Oleg Stefan (The Good Shepherd, Frasier) is the head of the USSR office in charge of international dealings, heavily makeuped Roger Allam (Ashes to Ashes, V for Vendetta) is the schemer trying to bid against Rogers, Derry Girls’ Anthony Boyle plays his son, Vikings: Valhalla’s Sofya Lebedeva is a Russian/English translator, Igor Grabuzov is the KGB agent, Japanese actress Ayane Nagabuchi plays Rogers’ wife Akemi, who runs the software company, Kanon Narumi plays the future CEO of Tetris Software, Rick Yune is a bank financier, Ken Yamamura is the Nintendo representative, Matthew Marsh is a ringer for Mikhail Gorbachev, and the film is produced by Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman series, X-Men: First Class, Kickass), Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and directed by Jon S. Baird (Stan & Ollie).
Overall writer Noah Pink does a nice job making business dealings, a subject that could have landed with a thud like negotiating tariffs in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, into something exciting, although at one point the various nature of the rights and who owns what becomes somewhat muddled. Along with Egerton, Toby Jones finally gets a substantial character role he can get lost in.
The best scene features Rogers and Pajitnov as two nerds from very different places geeking out like two best friends over game programming.
Who lives? Who dies? Who doesn’t make it out of Russia? Like the game itself Tetris the movie will keep you reeled in for every minute. Look for some footage from the actual people portrayed in the film in the end credits.
Video game fans, fans of retro nostalgia, Cold War thrillers, and great movies won’t want to miss this. In a year of ho-hum features, it’s worthy of consideration in the Best Picture category come awards time. Tetris is now streaming on Apple TV.