Writer/director Christopher Nolan is in rarified air amongst modern filmmakers. He’s one of a few big name auteurs who have yet to make a bad movie – the only other ones springing off the top of my head are Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Ryan Coogler. There are huge expectations resting on Nolan’s shoulders as theaters reopen. He’s like Michael Jordan calling for the rock late in a playoff game during the ‘90s – he’s more than happy to put everything on his back, doesn’t really give a damn if his actions harm others and is ultimately gonna win.
“Tenet” is my second least favorite Nolan movie to date … and I still really enjoyed it. My least favorite Nolan flick is his first effort “Following,” which is also good. There have been many complaints lodged against “Tenet” – it’s too long (it kept my attention), it’s too loud (I only noticed dialogue getting drowned out a time or two), it’s overly serious (guilty, but leading man John David Washington lends levity), it’s overly complicated (probably true, but if you can tune out the excess it actually becomes pretty simple).
Washington stars as Protagonist, a CIA agent in pursuit of Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (a scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh). He’s aided in his pursuit by Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and Jack-of-all-trades, Neil (Robert Pattinson). They get further assistance from soldiers named Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson … I didn’t even know he was in this!) and Wheeler (Fiona Douriff, Chucky’s daughter!), lab rat Barbara (Clémence Poésy) and a fixer named Mahir (Himesh Patel, a welcome presence after his charming turn in last summer’s “Yesterday”).
I don’t want to delve into the plot much more than I already have. “Tenet” is ultimately a simple story told in a complex manner. The movie’s time travel elements are less a necessity and more a stylistic flourish. This may be Nolan at his most Michael Mann-ish and the dude straight aped Mann’s “Heat” with “The Dark Knight.” In the world of “Tenet” what somebody does for a living says a lot more about them than who they actually are. In this respect, the film reminded me a lot of recent Mann efforts “Miami Vice” and especially “Blackhat.” Sure, Nolan farts around with time travel, but ultimately this is a story about a lone professional who falls under the charms of a woman entangled with a dangerous man and the lengths he’ll go to in order to extract her from the situation. Hell, the movie is also reminiscent of “Mission: Impossible II” and JDW’s Daddy’s own flick “Déjà Vu” too for that matter.
The performers generally excel. I’ve always liked Washington. He was good on “Ballers” and in “BlacKkKlansman.” He’s more convincingly badass here than he’s been before. The dude sounds exactly like his Pop and looks a lot more like him Mama. It’s probably not the time or place to say it (seriously, utmost respect and RIP to Chadwick Boseman), but I could see Washington being a decent replacement for the role of T’Challa if Coogler and Marvel proceed with a “Black Panther II” at all or one that isn’t fronted by Shuri (Letitia Wright).
I get the sneaking suspicion Nolan was a big fan of Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” which led to Debicki’s casting in this picture. He saw her play an abused woman who finally stands up for herself and plugged her and that vibe into this flick. Debicki is a talented actress whom I’ve enjoyed in a variety of projects (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” AMC’s “The Night Manager”). She’s not given a part as meaty as her “Widows” role, but she does an admirable job with it.
Pattinson doesn’t make the splash here that he did a coupla weeks ago with “The Batman” trailer, but that’s not to say the reliably consistent performer didn’t register. I just assumed there might be more to his character due to a resemblance between Neil and one of Pattinson’s castmates as a younger man.
“Tenet” is undeniably goofy and often falls into video game pitfalls that you’d assume Nolan was beyond at this point (the whole enterprise devolves, albeit entertainingly, into “Red vs. Blue” at the end, Taylor-Johnson’s essentially playing Captain Price from “Call of Duty”). I’ve really admired the direction Nolan’s gone in with his last few efforts – “Inception” and especially “Interstellar” show the depths of a parent’s love for their children and the lengths they’ll go to for reconciliation; “Dunkirk” was IMHO for all intents and purposes a horror movie that clearly conveys the terrors of war. These are my favorite Nolan features due to their level of feeling – something that’s often been seen as lacking from the filmmaker’s chilly oeuvre. “Tenet” is handsome, entertaining and leaves itself wide open for a sequel. I suppose I’d just say, “One more time with feeling!”