Since the 1993 release and tanking of Super Mario Bros., movies based on video games have developed a reputation for underachievement. 

Sure, there have been a successful parade of financially successful Resident Evil and Tomb Raider flicks – and Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu racked up some strong box office numbers – but few have leveled up to more than a 50% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. 

To be fair, though, Tetris isn’t a movie based on a video game. It’s a movie about a video game. 

Specifically, it’s about how the battle for the rights to the groundbreaking Russian computer program became a multimillion-dollar blood sport populated by, among others, a gutsy go-for-broke entrepreneur, some of the biggest names in business and Soviets with a variety of agendas. Plus Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Our entry point into the story is Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a Dutch-born American programmer described as “dumb but honest” who gets wind of the game at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Soon he’s bailed on his own lackluster version of the classic game Go and goes chasing after the big-buck potential he sees the falling blocks of Tetris

Because we know this ends with a worldwide hit that changed the face of computer and handheld games, the question arises about 20 minutes in as to whether there will be any dramatic arc or just a rise-and-rise story. 

The answer, it turns out, is that there’s plenty of story here, packed with intrigue, humor and strong characters. Now streaming on Apple TV+, the brisk film offers a mix of bureaucratic farce, business infighting, father / son conflict (between later-disgraced media mogul Robert Maxwell and his cocky offspring, Kevin), male bonding, paranoia, justified fear and international intrigue – all bathed in an east-vs-west battle of ideological and financial supremacy. 

Helping to spruce up the visuals, the filmmakers have replaced some establishing shots, chapter heads and exposition with period video imagery. This not only likely saved some production money, it also helps remind us of the (on the surface) frivolous product that’s at the center of the drama.  

Yes, I’ll confess to getting lost on occasion as to who is trying to buy what rights from whom. But director Jon S. Baird (whose credits include the underrated Stan & Ollie) and writer Noah Pink manage to never let the interest flag.

Where Tetris drops off is when it exaggerates, makes up details or resorts to cliches. Did we really need to see Rogers’ daughter singing in a school show and looking out on that empty seat where dad should be? And while I understand the temptation to add some thrown punches and a car chase through Moscow — not only for drama but for the chance to add more computer graphics — this fiction (hello, Argo) undermined my trust in the rest of the narrative. (On my bucket list is rereading Box Brown’s terrific graphic novel, Tetris: The Games People Play, which I enjoyed but whose details I’ve largely forgotten.)

Still, Tetris is far from being a brick. It’s a surprisingly fun, suspenseful, well-acted flick with a story more exciting – if less addictive – than the game itself.