One of the ironies of Tenet is that it kept reminding me of Déjà Vu, the Tony Scott/Denzel Washington time-twisting terrorist-thwarting picture … with John David Washington in suits as sharp as anything his notably dressy father ever wore on screen as the nameless secret agent, listed in the credits as The Protagonist, stepping backwards and forwards in time from one narrative and literal big bang to another. Yes, the codeword tenet is also a palindrome, so the usual fractal mindwarpery of time-travel pictures – at one point, characters admit this all makes their heads hurt – is replaced by rolling something forwards and backwards at the same time while invoking the multiverse theory to ensure that there’s still suspense about the eventual outcome.
This Christopher Nolan auteur work has his favoured steely hugeness – a look so muted it makes the average Michael Mann thriller look like an MGM Technicolor musical – to go with its unreadable hero and hard-to-parse actual story. It gets big and loud when the action starts, even if involvement is hard to maintain when the premise requires characters to be indistinguishable from one another (and their future/past selves) so that reveals can come after the fact (or, from another way of looking at it, before) as to who has done what. It’s unfailingly impressive filmmaking, but hard to get along with. The Protagonist feels like a place-holder in a screenwriting course seminar – his motivation is to save a) all of time and space, and b) Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), though his sudden devotion to a mystery woman he’s never met is never more than a token. Yes, Debicki is tall, thin, blonde, well-dressed and gorgeous – but the Protagonist’s Q equivalent is played by Clémence Poésy and he doesn’t give her a second look after she’s tried to explain how bullets inverted in time work.
It’s possible that the label on Washington’s character is misleading and the actual protagonists of Tenet are the men standing either side of him – Neil (Robert Pattinson), a seedy posh spy who suggests Pattinson would be great casting for Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, and arms dealer Andrew Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who has many of the traits (including the sadistic treatment of his wife) of the Bond villains Ian Fleming wrote before the movies made a cat-stroking joke of the type. Michael Caine has a mandatory guest appearance as an Establishment intelligence fixer and Aaron Taylor-Johnson hides behind a big beard as an SAS type who is on hand when the film needs a spare action hero.
The plot is as globe-trotting as the Bonds, with a terrorist attack/siege/caper during a concert in Kiev … bungee-ascending in Mumbai … a meeting where the camera whirls around men having an intense discussion in what looks like that new development round the back of Kings Cross Station … a heist of a super-secure freeport storage facility next to Oslo airport, with several big tricks (a runaway jet freighter, a fire system that sucks air out of rooms) … a back-and-forward car chase on some roads somewhere … a spectacular spell on a yacht off Vietnam as an unhappy couple are beastly to each other (very Flemingy) … and a helicopter raid on an abandoned nuclear storage facility in an ex-Soviet desert. Ludwig Göransson’s score is the aural equivalent of IMAX – ear-filling in an unprecedented way, incorporating the gunfire and explosions of shoot-outs, but not necessarily the technical advance cinema needs.