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Tenet (PG-13)

Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

John David Washington is exactly the A-list blend of dramatic gravitas and action chops that he appeared to be in BlacKkKlansman and watching him is the best part of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s two-and-a-half-hour movie that has been saddled with the job of Saving Movie Theaters.

Will it save movies? According to Variety on Sept. 6, Tenet made a little over $20 million during Labor Day weekend in the U.S. and was at a worldwide total of around $146 million (it opened internationally before it hit screens in the U.S.). When I saw the movie on Sept. 1, I was one of six people in the screening room (which is actually not terrible for a mid-week 6 p.m. movie, based on my experience). So … we’ll see?

About the movie itself: I’ll try not to spoil anything major, but I don’t promise anything, partly because I’m not entirely sure what would be a spoiler. The most basic description for this movie I’ve seen is something like “spy action with sci-fi elements.” To me, it falls in the “Christopher Nolan genre”: There’s a lot of deep bass “wahm wahm”-ing on the score, there’s a pervading sense of doom, there’s a fun Michael Caine scene.

Washington, whose character doesn’t have a name (I didn’t notice that while I was watching it but searching around afterward everything just calls him The Protagonist, which is how he refers to himself a few times), is a CIA-or-something agent whom we first meet while he’s on a mission in the Ukraine. The mission goes sideways but, after some torture and stuff, he is rescued and told he is now part of an even more secret mission, one he is given very little information about other than the word “tenet” and a little fingers-clasp-y gesture.

He partners with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a British intelligence operative, who helps him unravel the origins of some strange weapons he first saw in Ukraine. The movie becomes a series of heists: get into this impregnable place to meet this person, weasel into the orbit of this other person, steal this thing from this other impregnable place, etc, all leading up to a big battle.

The deeper we get into this movie the more I started to see its similarities to the Bill & Ted movies; there’s a fair amount of “because phone-booth time machine, just go with it” (though, strictly speaking, Tenet isn’t about time travel in the phone-booth sense). And I’m OK with that. I don’t need to see the math — one of the flaws of this movie is that it does a little too much trying to explain the math to us. Basically, the core idea of Tenet is based on a cool visual effect. It’s pretty cool the first time you see it and pretty cool throughout. If sliced down to its central elements, a pretty cool visual effect, a very compelling performance by its lead (Washington) and interesting chemistry in the core partnership (Washington and Pattinson, who does solid work here), Tenet has good bones.

But.

But the movie is at least 45 minutes longer than it needs to be. I get it — cool effect, look at all the ways we can use it. It gets exhausting after a while, especially in the final fight sequence, where I understood, in the macro sense, what was happening, but in the second-to-second sense it was frequently all a jumble of Stuff. I feel like we’re watching the same trick too many times and the more mechanics and repetition are piled on, the more the central performances and the urgency get lost.

Another “but”: I found myself annoyed by the handling of a character played by Elizabeth Debicki. I like Debicki (see also Widows) but there are a lot of irritating choices made with her. I don’t know that any of the Tenet characters act like recognizable humans but there are really only two female characters of any consequence and this one feels like she was written by an alien who has never met a woman.

The experience of watching Tenet was strange; I felt myself constantly alternating between thinking “ugh, enough, movie” and thinking “huh, cool.” The movie feels very self-aware, which I think is on purpose, but it is a little too impressed with its own cleverness. B-

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Tenet is two whole hours and then another 30 minutes on top of that and is distributed by Warner Bros. In theaters

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