Taron Egerton could read the phone book, and the project would be a must-see for this viewer. After first catching my eye in subversive spy comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service, Egerton has continued to deliver phenomenal performances. He was particularly show-stopping as Elton John in 2019’s phenomenal musical, Rocketman. Now, Egerton plays video game salesman Henk Rogers in the vibrant, colorful true story of bringing Moscow creation Tetris worldwide! Director Jon S. Baird presents what could have been a boring movie of crumbling, tense negotiations as an energetic, dark dramedy romp of constantly moving parts.
Level 1 begins in 1988, set to an animated, 8-bit opening before we meet player 1: Henk Rogers. Henk is desperate for people to play his game Go, when his salesgirl wanders off to sample an alluring new game called Tetris. Just like that, Henk declares Tetris to be “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” proclaiming he sees falling blocks in his dreams after playing for just five minutes. Without thinking twice, Henk scoops up the Japanese gaming rights for Tetris—using the money he actually owed back to the bank. With a knack for building up unfortunate debts without anything to show for it, one would assume Henk would have a difficult time to pony up future funds, but his persuasive nature and appealing proposal manages to win him over what he needs. Henk must borrow three million, and offer up his own family home in Tokyo as collateral… what could possibly go wrong?
Multiple rights issues and gaming companies are involved in the mad dash to make Tetris into a worldwide phenomenon. Henk is given a first glimpse at the legendary original Game Boy, a Nintendo device that would eventually blow the doors open on handheld gaming. As he sinks deeper and deeper into the quicksand of the Soviet Union, Henk begins neglecting his beautiful family, including his wife (Ayane Nagabuchi) and their adorable children. Billionaire media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allman) and his abrasive son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle), make a mad dash for Tetris, circling it like vultures. Meanwhile, Henk grows closer to the game’s original creator, Alexey (Nikita Efremov), desperate to find any means by which he can help this thing go global for the betterment of his own Bullet Proof Software company—and mankind!
In the madcap world of Tetris, video game graphics are used as scene transitions, 80s hits like “The Final Countdown” and “Holding Out for a Hero” are peppered into the soundtrack along with retro gaming noises aplenty, and there are more wrenches thrown in Henk’s plans than in any given episode of Netflix’s Ozark. During a taping for the Josh Horowitz’s HAPPY SAD CONFUSED podcast, Egerton was asked about the upcoming Tetris, and insisted that it was a project he was very excited for. He promised a unique mustache and a type of role he has never played before—Henk Rogers certainly checks both of those boxes. Egerton is the glue that holds this film together, and part of what makes Tetris so memorably awesome.
A similar true-story movie about gaming that I loved entitled Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is soon to be released; as much as I loved that, Tetris is in a league all its own thanks to stylistic choices and sharp scripting. A suspenseful final act moves around the intricate pieces of the puzzle as if engaged in a high-stakes game of chess. Making what boils down to a series of extended negotiations into a genuinely engaging film is no easy feat, yet Tetris manages to pull it off with minimal effort. Tetris continues to be one of the best-selling games of all time—thanks to real-life heroes such as Henk Rogers, the general public’s passion for this timeless game will not wane anytime soon.
Stack the blocks for Tetris, which screens at 2023’s SXSW Film Festival before line-clearing exclusively to Apple+ subscribers on Friday, March 31st.