Bullet-Proof Software’s Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton, "Rocketman") was hawking the video game Go at a 1988 Las Vegas convention when he was introduced to Tetris, a game he found not only addictive but haunting his dreams. After discovering Robert Stein (Toby Jones, "Empire of Light") had already acquired computer rights from the Russians for Robert Maxwell’s (Roger Allam) Mirrorsoft, Rogers sets his sights on arcade and hand held options, only to find himself caught between corrupt Russian Communism and burgeoning Russian Capitalism over “Tetris.”
Laura's Review: B
Director Jon S. Baird ("Filth") and writer Noah Pink (TV's 'Genius') find a whole new way into adapting a video game for a movie with their cheeky Cold War video game thriller pitting one well-intentioned Dutch American businessman up against conniving billionaires and a shifting, yet still scarily repressive Soviet Union. Anchored by Egerton’s endearing performance as a likable family man and somewhat naïve risk taking entrepreneur navigating shark-infested waters, “Tetris” is as fast moving and has almost as many moving pieces as the game itself.
After crashing the offices of Nintendo and securing both an audience and a deal with Hiroshi Yamauchi (Togo Igawa, "The Hedgehog"), Henk pitches his bank manager (Rick Yune, "Olympus Has Fallen") for $3 million to produce 200,000 Nintendo game cartridges. Egerton makes the man’s integrity so apparent, it is no surprise he’s given the go ahead. He became an awestruck fan when he learned of the game’s genesis - written by Russian government programmer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) on a computer with no video card, the game was shared around for free on floppy disks before Stein monetized it for Western markets for the bargain basement price of $10,000. The good will Henk radiates will be a strong asset when he finally arrives in Russia, doing right by Pajitnov part of his plan.
Rogers will cut a deal with Mirrorsoft dealing with Maxwell’s son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle), only to be end runned and lose the arcade rights. In an attempt to cut out this nefarious middle man, Henk travels to Moscow, attains a translator, Sasha (Sofya Lebedeva), in his hotel lobby, and arrives at ELORG, the state organization responsible for importing and exporting software brandishing his Nintendo Tetris cartridge. Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Shtefanko, "The Good Shepherd") informs him that those rights were never given, his copy illegal. While the suspicious Belikov eventually realizes Henk is on the up and up, Henk having told the man that Stein’s loose contractual definition of ‘computer’ gave him rights to not only PCs but Nintendo game machines and cluing him in to the future of handheld Gameboys, Belikov is being overruled by Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov, "Why Don't You Just Die!"), who’s been bribed by Maxwell Sr., against Maxwell Jr.’s wishes. With a very nervous Alexey and Nina Pajitnov (Ieva Andrejevaite) agreeing to dinner at a time when it was illegal to invite a foreigner into your home, Henk may still need to dart and dodge through some very dangerous territory, but he now has allies in multiple places.
Working with Pink’s twisty script, Baird casts all this skullduggery like an espionage thriller, albeit one with comic flourishes. Although we see Tetris on screen from Aleksky’s text-based original through its Gameboy rendition, the gaming world is represented visually in Baird’s scene transitions, representing characters traveling in pixilated animation or revealing real world locations as animated blocks dropping down the screen like Tetris and disappearing. Scotland stands in for Moscow and Tokyo, where the Dutch American Henk lives with his Japanese wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi) and their children, which explains why most locations are interiors.
Egerton really carries this film as a man illustrating that capitalism can be motivated with good intent (we and Belikov can see the sincerity in the actor’s eyes). Young Kanon Narumi plays Henk’s daughter Maya, representing every overworked dad’s conundrum when he misses her school recital only to have it recreated at home (Maya would go on to take over dad’s company, formed with the man he got out of Russia).
“Tetris” is a whole lot of fun, just maybe not in the way one would usually expect from a movie named for a video game.
Robin's Review: B+
Back in 1984, one of the most popular video games in the world had its auspicious beginnings in the then-Soviet Union. An enterprising Dutch entrepreneur, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), sees the game as his path to riches and fame and makes the arduous journey to Moscow to gain the worldwide rights to “Tetris.”
I have not lived in a hole my adult life so I know about things like Tetris (sort of). I never played the game – the last video game I played was Pong – but I knew of it. Well, my “knowledge” did not prepare me for a story of high-stakes capitalism, political intrigue and intimidation, international legal battles, greed, an unstable USSR and one man’s mission to bring Tetris out of communist obscurity and to the world’s game-playing masses.
Egerton portrays Henk Rogers seamlessly, immediately making me believe I was watching the real Henk as he willingly and blindly follow his instinct and his personal drive to bring us what became one of the most popular video games ever. What struck me most about his obsession to bring Tetris to us all are the levels of the governments and corporations involved in what should have been a simple marketing rights problem.
Henk’s first exposure to Tetris begins the spiral that will make or break the entrepreneur as he discovers just how deep greed will go. From the start, it is obvious that there are problems with bringing a Soviet-made product to the West, even if it is an addictive game. Also, other companies have acquired bootleg versions of Tetris and selling on their own. The question of “ownership” is paramount in the story as Nintendo, Atari and others try to get their hands on the elusive product.
The “ownership” question seems really straightforward: the game’s inventor, Soviet citizen Alexey Pajitnove (Nikita Efremov), is the “owner,” but, remember, we are talking the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the iron hand they still imposed on its people – like defining “ownership” as owned by the state. This is where the greed kicks in as the Soviet officials vie to make a buck (or a million) on the game, just like us greedy capitalists.
Director Jon S. Baird, working from the script by Noah Pink, takes what could be a convoluted and confusing tale and gives it structure and nuance that keeps you both interested and informed. There are many players in this intriguing story, with Egerton leading the pack, and they all fill their roles with precision and depth of character(s). This is a real and large ensemble cast and it makes “Tetris” a believable telling of a fascinating story, well crafted.
"Tetris" begins streaming on Apple TV+ on 3/31/23.