My head hurts.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Nolan handle action any better than he does in Tenet. When it’s not trying to be overtly complicated, Tenet works as an absolutely thrilling action film with some of the best set pieces in Nolan’s career. Once again, Nolan’s collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema yields tremendous rewards as Hoytema is able to shoot the action in a way that is both cinematic and epic while also being easy for the audience to follow. Remember when Nolan spoke out on his admiration for the Fast and Furious franchise? You best believe he took some notes from those movies because the convoy heist and car chase sequences would fit right in with the best set pieces of the Fast franchise. Those two sequences must have been an absolute chore to shoot, but the final product is exciting, tense, and they always keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s not just the set pieces that have gotten an upgrade, but it’s also the close quarters combat that showed the biggest improvement.
It’s really no surprise that John David Washington was a former athlete because he sells the action. The hand-to-hand combat is great not only because of how well it’s shot, but also because of how able and willing Washington is in performing the action. You could argue about his charisma and screen presence, but when it’s time for him to performa stunt, he’s putting his all into the physical performance. The sequence when Washington’s Protagonist is fighting with his reverse self is about as mental as the hallway fight in Inception, but instead of rotating hallways, it’s a fight where both characters are fighting in different realities. Nolan’s come a long way since the shaky cam in Batman Begins and despite the lack of emotional depth, the action manages to stand on its own as an entertaining part of a largely mediocre whole.
This is probably the first Nolan movie where I was left feeling cold on the characters. I think John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are very charismatic performers, but their characters don’t have much in the way of backstory, which would have really helped make Tenet feel less emotionally detached. The closest we get to an actual character is Elizabeth Debicki, but she’s not nearly as much of a presence as the film tries to make her out to be. If you’ve been waiting for a Bond film directed by Nolan, then Tenet is the film for you as it has globetrotting espionage, guys in stylish suits, and a comical villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. Kenneth Branagh’s Sator is an absolute bastard in this movie and that’s fine, but at least give Branagh some more material to work with to make the character memorable and compelling.
The real stakes of the film don’t really come until the end of act two and by then, Sator is still a one dimensional villain whose motives for world destruction carry little to no weight. The best sequences are between Branagh and Debicki who plays his estranged wife who’s trying to get custody of their son. This could have made for good personal stakes, but their relationship never gets much time to flesh out so the end result is just Sator beating up his wife for the whole film until she decides she’s had enough. For some reason, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is in this movie too, but he’s not even a character and also shows up too late to make a real impact. We’re told not to “think about it, just feel it” but it’s hard not to think about Tenet’s concepts when the characters feel hollow.
It’s about as ambitious as Inception was, but unlike Inception, Tenet seems to be more interested in its concepts rather than its characters. There are plenty of surface level thrills with great stunts that are being performed by great actors, but it’s ultimately a hollow venture as Tenet prefers to keep the audience at a distance rather than to invite them in. I would have liked more sequences between Washington, Pattinson, and Debicki, but the scenes they do have together are good stuff. Nolan’s displayed tremendous improvement over the span of 11 films and while his filmmaking style continues to evolve, I fear his ambitions might be taking over his ability to tell an emotional, character-driven story.