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‘Tenet’ (review)

Gene Siskel was known to say that if he could see anyone play James Bond, it would be Denzel Washington. It would have been great, but alas, it never came to be.

Instead, we have his son, John David Washington, as a spy in Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s latest opus. And he’s a suave, steely hero, though more in the mold of Jason Bourne. It’s a pleasure to watch him.

If only the rest of the movie were better.

Tenet is Nolan’s ballyhooed take on Bond, a globetrotting spy movie with a sci-fi twist.

Its plot is both slight and ridiculously convoluted. Washington’s nameless protagonist (literally credited as “Protagonist”) is a soldier captured on a mission. Rather than give up his comrades, he kills himself with a cyanide capsule, or so he thinks.

The whole situation, he learns, was a test.

The protagonist is recruited by a top secret organization called Tenet, charged with stopping World War III. The conflict is temporal, having something to do with ammunition that has had its flow of entropy reversed in order to travel backwards through time.

His search for the source of the backwards bullets leads him to a Russian arms dealer, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and his blackmailed wife (Elizabeth Debicki). To say much more would spoil the movie. Also, I’m still not quite sure how everything fits together.

Tenet throws a lot at the viewer, from temporal conspiracies to backwards fight scenes, but what it lacks is character development, clarity and coherence. The protagonist goes through the plot’s motions, picking up a charming Robert Pattinson as his partner along the way. Meanwhile, the only character with any real sense of pathos is Debicki’s Kat, and only because Nolan forces it upon her through multiple scenes of abuse.

The biggest problem with Tenet is that Nolan thinks he’s made a much smarter movie than he actually has. There are interesting ideas, to be sure, but the execution is half-baked.

The disc includes a 13-part in depth making of doc. The dialogue is stilted, the chronology is too jumbled to properly follow, and some of the backwards effects look sillier than they should. The freeport fight scene, where Washington’s protagonist fights a soldier moving backwards, is a prime example.

Speaking of examples, Tenet shows just what happens when you give a director a huge toybox and little to no supervision. It’s loud, self-serious and tremendously indulgent, but also flat and strangely dull as the plot drags on. Perhaps Tenet hangs together better with multiple viewings, but it’s not fun enough to sit through again.


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