Skip to main content

What is this, the sequel to The Notebook?

Men in Black: International
(2019)

(SPOILERS) The failure, both critically and commercially, of Sony’s limpid attempt to reignite (soft reboot) the Men in Black franchise has confirmed how desperate they are, scrabbling about for anything that might turn their fortunes around but without a scintilla of the inspiration or acumen to achieve it. They’re now on their second attempt with Ghostbusters, resuscitating Bad Boys – perhaps surprisingly, a big hit – and not making as much hay with their one smartly reinvented property (Jumanji) as they should have. And yes, they have their Spider-verse, but having all their eggs in one basket led to the downfall of the Amy Pascal regime. Despite the sad fate that befell Men in Black: International, though – the once mooted 21 Jump Street mashup would surely have been more in line with the tone of the original – it’s actually a fairly agreeable, if determinedly unremarkable movie.

Quite aside from the struggles getting a new MIB off the ground, and that the MIB heyday thing was very much historic and time capsuled, that of the halcyon, X-Files decade of the 90s when aliens and Will Smith went hand in hand, I had my doubts about this picture as soon as the director and cast were announced. I was never a huge fan of MIB, but even with the need-a-hit second instalment, they carried a definite sense of what they were about: Barry Sonnenfeld’s broad, bouncy, cartoonish visual sensibility married to Smith’s larger-than-life persona and Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan. So where did F Gary Gray fit into that, a journeyman director not exactly prized for his comedy chops? Indeed, his The Fate of the Furious is singled out by lacking – the odd Stath interlude aside – the balletic visual oomph of its better prior outings.

And what was Sony doing casting Chris Hemsworth, funny Thor and Ghostbusters support aside, being in no way a “comedy” guy. And Tessa Thompson? Okay, they’d appeared together in the larky Thor: Ragnarok, but the combination suggested Sony were actively disinterested in attracting audiences with the promise of similar hijinks to those the series had displayed historically (besides which, Hemsworth’s non MCU vehicles have been consistently resistant to suggestions that he may be a star outside of them). Indeed, if one didn’t know better, one might have thought the studio was angling for something closer to The X-Files itself than the goofy tone the series was known for.

Which, it turns out, little wacky aliens designs aside, it pretty much was. Possibly even more so prior to the version that made it to cinemas. Such was my disinterest in Men in Black: International, it entirely passed me by that the production had been so stormy (I mean, when you have the kind of reshoots Dark Phoenix suffered to divert your attention, everything else palls by comparison). It seems Men in Black: International was your classically rushed production, with a first draft screenplay that required significant rewriting, often at the behest of series producer Walter F Parkes and to the objection of Gray, who suffered the ill effects of Parkes’ interference when Sony VP David Beaubaire left the studio.

The “edgier and more timely” screenplay dealing with immigration was softened, it seems (but in fairness, producer Parkes was historically no slouch in the writing department, with WarGames and Sneakers to his name; certainly, I’d more readily listen to his ideas than credited writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum. Perhaps the handling of topical material was, like so much Hollywood produces, heavy-handed and glib). Of course, Parkes and co-producer Laurie MacDonald naturally had a less incendiary take on the Hollywood Reporter’s story. Whatever the details, there were sufficient ructions that Sony ended up with two cuts of the movie, a Gray one and a Parkes one, with the latter’s picked for release.

Men in Black: International is quite serviceable, particular during the first hour, but with Gray helming, it sands no chance of taking off visually or exhibiting any degree of real verve (and the big action set piece on a hover bike is as unnecessary and lethargic as one might expect). Hemsworth is fully trading on his Thor persona, channelling the faux-Shakespearean tones of the Norse god into a reasonably funny faux-posh English caricature. That said, his character, cocky and over-confident and careless, is crippled by an all-important thread whereby he isn’t the guy he used to be (“He’s changed. I can feel it”) and so can’t be trusted. Except that it’s never clear, aside from having had his memory of a crucial incident wiped, just why this should be the case. It means we never get a sense of who H is supposed to be (the question remains, though, why not convert H as well as Liam Neeson’s High T, given there was evidently the opportunity).

Thompson’s Molly/M is likeable but blandly unmemorable. The most noteworthy aspect of her involvement is questioning the operation’s gender-biased name, and that was in the trailer. Much of the plot revolves around the prospect of a mole in MIB, working for aliens the Hive, and this element sustains itself quite effectively, even given there are only two options, Rafe Spall’s Agent C, who is so obnoxious it can’t be him, and respectable veteran High T. So there you go. Emma Thompson is back as Agent O, Rebecca Ferguson plays a three-armed alien like she’s auditioning for AbFab, and Kumail Najiani, recently on the steroids, voices tiny alien sidekick Pawny.

Maybe I had very low expectations, but Men in Black: International’s no worse than many of the middling studio movies that came out last year. It confirms what we knew anyway – Men in Black 3 bucked the feeling that the franchise was one-and-done redundant, but only due to the time travel element – but perhaps it’s just as well to have it underlined that all those now nostalgia-ripe 90s SF properties (The X-Files, Independence Day, Men in Black) have little latter-day lustre. And certainly not when their original architects are still attached.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).