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Review: 'Tenet'

When Daniel Craig announced that he would not be returning to the role of James Bond following the completion of No Time To Die, the speculation about his possible replacement went viral.

Might a woman play 007? Might James Bond be portrayed by a black actor?

Idris Elba’s name began to pop up. After fifty 007 movies, what might it be like to break with the formula and have a black actor play Bond?

The answer can be seen in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, time-bending action-thriller Tenet.

John David Washington plays a mysterious character known only as The Protagonist. For all means and purposes, he’s James Bond.

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

He’s handsome, impeccably well-dressed, sexy (though politely modest about it) and well-trained in all manner of weapons and martial arts skills.

He’s intelligent. And he occasionally tosses around some humorous quips.

Lastly, he’s compassionate, caring and heroic when it comes to rescuing a beautiful woman from the clutches of a demented villain. Essentially, he’s the black Bond.

The movie opens with a chilling terrorist attack on the unsuspecting audience members of an opera house.

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

It is reminiscent of the show-stopping entrance of Bane in the movie The Dark Knight Rises (2012) when he and his henchmen blow up a football stadium and drag out a destructive nuclear device for all the world to see.

I know what I’m talking about.

I was a movie extra in the stands of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh where the scene was shot. Christopher Nolan himself was on the field that day, directing.

The opening of Tenet had an element of Déjà vu.

It’s a great set-up, even if we’ve seen it before.

Shortly afterward, we are introduced to The Protagonist, a modern-day kindred spirit to Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in all those Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns.

While we never learn his real name, we soon learn why he has been recruited to stop the world from total annihilation.

He has the skill set. And, he has proven that he is willing to unselfishly sacrifice himself to save others.

The dilemma he faces is a strange one that defies our sense of space and time.

Without trying to explain it, which the entire movie attempts to do, let’s just say that the premise here is time is not linear.

Instead, it can run forward as well as backwards.

And, at times, it can run forward and backwards at the same time. If that sounds bewildering, it is.

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

But all this is from the fertile imagination of Christopher Nolan who also served up the concept of entering someone else’s dreams and experiencing dreams within dreams in his movie Inception (2010).

He’s not afraid of unconventional, unorthodox storytelling, as evidenced in his first major film Memento (2000) in which the main character’s memory is erased every morning when he wakes up.

The very subject matter of time travel and the bending of time is fraught with inherent problems the biggest of which is the famous time paradox involving the delicate balance of cause and effect and the disastrous consequences when the flow of time is disturbed.

All movies about time, time travel and messing with time, carefully dance around the many pitfalls that strain the very limits of our brainpower.

Suffice it to say that it usually turns into a twisted mess when you do give it any thought. Tenet is no exception.

The movie title is a palindrome, which is to say it’s a word that is spelled the same way, forward or backward.

It’s a clever title for a cleverly conceived movie about bi-directional time. Making it into a coherent movie is a whole other thing.

While Tenet may ultimately fail in that regard, it more than makes up for that shortcoming with its high energy action sequences.

They include all the obligatory spy thriller sequences we’ve come to know and love—rappelling off tall buildings, intricate martial arts fighting, car chases, and even a large scale military combat sequence in the final reels. Plural.

I’m alluding to the fact that Tenet runs a bit long. Roughly two and a half hours, which is not unusual for a Christopher Nolan movie.

He has a tendency to let the material get away from him, as evidenced in the unnecessarily long climactic battle showcasing Tenet’s signature special effects.

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

To its credit, Tenet has a great cast including Robert Pattinson as a fellow protagonist (named Neil) Elizabeth Debicki as the damsel in distress (Kat) and Kenneth Branagh as the terrifying villain Andrei Sator. Even Michael Caine pops up in a short cameo.

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

Their performances are all first-rate.

Technically, Tenet is what you have come to expect from Christopher Nolan. He is a master of powerful visuals.

In this case, images shot on IMAX format, which he has used in the past.

While we live in a time when feature films are being released on demand directly to our living rooms, Tenet is a movie that begs to be seen and experienced in an IMAX movie theater.

Everything about it is big and splashy from the images and spectacular special effects to the thunderous music score (deserving of an Oscar) to the jarring audio effects.

Technically, the only problem I had at the special screening I attended was some difficulty hearing the dialog. Oddly, I had a similar complaint with other Nolan movies like The Dark Knight Rises. Bane’s mask didn’t help.

In the end, if they shot James Bond movies on IMAX, they would look and sound like this.

Tenet pays further homage to the Bond movies with the inclusion of gold ingots (right out of Goldfinger, 1964) and a scene right out of Thunderball (1965), involving a villain torturing his mistress aboard his lavish luxury yacht.

If I appear to know a lot about the details of old James Bond movies, I’ll confess that I wrote a published paper when I was in graduate school at Temple University entitled “James Bond and America in the Sixties: An Investigation of the Formula Film in Popular Culture" (Journal of the University Film Association, 1976).

I can spot a James Bond reference when I see one. A mile away.

The James Bond geek in me loved all the borrowed elements in Tenet. The movie junkie part of me loved the entertainment value, overall.

Chances are, you will, too.

Just try not to think about the plot too deeply or analyze it too much.

It’s headache inducing.


Tenet is playing in some overseas markets and opens nationwide in the U.S. on September 3.


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