On one hand, Jon S. Baird’s Tetris is a light, entertaining true-life against-all-odds drama with a breezy style, nice performances and three happy endings: the worldwide success of the Nintendo GameBoy, the fall of the Soviet Union and the ruin of Robert Maxwell. But, like The Founder and Air, it’s also an entry in a weird sub-genre of films about middle-men as heroes, perhaps calculated to appeal to execs who have the power to greenlight the work of actual creatives.
In the late 1980s, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) – Dutch-born, New York-raised, Japan-resident – has a struggling games company which hasn’t made a hit of a computer version of Go he himself designed … he picks up on the addictive Tetris, a time-sink created by Soviet government employee Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) which is so obviously, instantly addictive that big players in a still-nascent games industry are competing for it, though contracts in place are nebulous thanks to technology evolving so swiftly that whole new areas (home computer, arcade, hand-held) are springing up overnight. Tetris has already been brought out of Russia by Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who’s sold it on to Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam under a ton of latex), who has his ‘don’t call me Kevin’ son (Anthony Boyle) in charge of the games division which might expand to save an empire which is deeply in the red despite his billionaire bluff. Maxwell boasts that Gorbachev is his friend and intends to honour communism by not offering any money for the game but swapping the rights for the Russian rights to an enclyclopedia.
Henk goes to Russia – leaving adorable Japanese wife and daughter to be neglected, with the dire peril of Dad missing daughter’s special concert as he gets mixed up with bureaucrats, spies, the underground, a few honourable officials in a crumbling regime and the beginnings of Russian organised crime, while bonding tentatively with Alexey. Henk’s big contribution is asking things like ‘why can’t two lines vanish at once?’ while pursuing exciting contract clause opportunities, getting beaten up and stripped of his Levis by thugs, discovering his sweet eccentric translator (Sofya Lebedeva) is a KGB spy and being menaced by a slick-haired creep (Igor Grabuzov) who is already segueing from communism to corruption as a way of staying on top through the coming upheavals. Noah Pink’s script presumably plays with the truth – I doubt there were quite as many satisfying moments in which members of the Maxwell family got punched in the face, and we get a ton of rush-to-the-airport, hurried-meet-with-the-First-Secretary-during-a-military-parade, goons-exerting-pressure-on-innocents spy movie bits. The milieu inspires blocky animated inserts and a lot of references to falling objects – the baddie dangles a little girl off a parapet, for instance.
It differentiates Rogers and Stein solely by how cinegenic they are – the handsome naïve one is a good guy, the sweaty creepy other one a minor villain, though they both want to make fortunes with a game they didn’t invent and need someone else to market. I admit I found this more gripping than the film about the fucking shoe.