“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Truer words have never been said. Especially when it comes to TENET, the latest work of the man intent on blowing your mind (and eardrums), Christopher Nolan, who offers another film full of brain churning ideas nestled in-between the auteur’s penchant for sharp dressed people doing cool shit. Refreshingly, as the above quote states, Nolan for once seems to be having some actual fun with this one, slightly undoing a button on his immaculate blazer and allowing his stars and visuals to exist as they are: intelligently manufactured beings hurtling through a zany sci-fi/spy caper.
The film's simplistic approach to such big brained material is emphasized in our protagonist’s name, which is of course simply, The Protagonist (John David Washington), a cool as a cucumber special forces operator who is introduced in the midst of a slam bang siege on an opera house. Everything you could love or dislike about Nolan is upfront in this introductory set piece: crisp photography courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema framing loud and noisy shootouts that contain muffled dialogue spoken by cool people espousing cool guy lines and, of course, the tantalizing tease of the concept of time running amok. It all comes to a head when The Protagonist is compromised, leading to his supposed “suicide”, which is actually just a test to allow him entry into a shadowy temporal focused agency named TENET. Efficiently, Nolan gets to the problem — someone (specifically a brutal weapons dealer played by a Eastern European accented Kenneth Branagh) has their hands on a weapon that can destroy the world through the manipulation of time — and doles out an equally simple solution — stop the bad guy from using the weapon — to get to what he actually wants to show off: a fun and heady spy romp through various beautiful locales.
On that level, TENET is a surefire success. For the most part Mr. Nolan finally relaxes a bit with his story and themes and focuses on creating awesome set pieces where action scenes play out forwards, backwards, and in its most ingenious moments, in both modes, throwing bodies, bullets, and cars ahead and back in the time space continuum in the same shot. As with other Nolan sci-fi films, the filmmaker gets a little too lost in the finer details of his wacky sci-fi jargon with esteemed actors delivering nerd talk in humorously straight faced fashion, but in all, understanding what any of the characters are talking about when it comes to the time stuff is second fiddle to the actual playing out of the messed up time sequences they come across. In some of the best action sequences he’s created up to now, TENET delivers on its wacked out promise of seeing dudes duke it out forward and backward in time. You probably won’t understand the “how” of action scenes playing out but it’d be hard to deny how awesome it all looks. Even at roughly close to 2.5 hours, TENET flies just as quick as it does in the film itself.
Nonetheless, some of Nolan’s past quibbles make their presence known, particularly when it comes to his characters. Make no mistake, just as Nolan seems to be having a bit more fun with this outing, so too does his cast who are all very aware of the bonkers movie they’ve signed onto. Mr. David Washington, while playing what is essentially just a really sharp dressed cipher, still manages to bring that Washington charm to his blank slate good guy, rocking the hell out suits and handily delivering some of the, at times, unsteady cool guy dialogue of Nolan’s script. Robert Pattinson shows up as Washington’s slightly more personable partner in crime, fluffing up his scenes with an enjoyable air of suaveness that can’t quite manage to fill in the one-noteness of his character, even as the film’s final act seems to press that the relationship between the two men is more important than how it actually plays out. Taking on the role of the film’s baddie, Mr. Branagh chomps on his villainous tirades and threats with a plausible sense of brutal menace even as it comes out through a cartoonish accent. Surprisingly though, of all the characters in the film, and in spite of the decision to hop onto a goofy accent, Branagh’s bad guy slowly turns out to be the character with the more interesting motivations, one fueled by a traumatic past and present indifference to the future of the world lending a deeper feeling to his basic plot to kind of just destroy the world. Outside of those nuggets of deeper motivations however, every character TENET seems to just exist in order to look nice in a variety of suits or dresses (in the case of Elizabeth Debicki’s role as a hapless woman under the thumb of Branagh’s thug) and fill out the action scenes with bodies. They aren’t characters so much as very nice looking mannequins, but again, TENET doesn’t seem to posit itself as a super self-serious action film; instead, it’s a very well constructed thrill ride.
And after so many years of self-seriousness, it’s pretty fun to see Nolan loosen up a bit, especially in the arena of a spy film. This thing probably won’t get a sequel or franchise but for the many things that TENET does right, the most important one is making me want to see another one of these things get made.