Men in Black: International

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

Men in Black is one of those curious franchises that, even decades after its first release, has yet to prove itself a viable franchise. As is the case with Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters, the continuing popularity of the series has endured almost entirely because of a single original film that no subsequent release has managed to match, never mind surpass. The profits are there, to be sure, but that’s more of a marketing achievement than it is a qualitative one. On the two occasions that the original team from the 1997 hit (minus screenwriter Ed Solomon) reunited to revisit what appeared to be a strong enough foundation upon which to build a continuing franchise, the results have been underwhelming. Whatever the secret ‘X’ factor is that allowed the first Men in Black to be this perfect, unique action-comedy-sci-fi blockbuster, neither of its sequels were able to figure it out. Maybe it’s a case of lightning being captured in a bottle where the success of the original was so singular and unlikely that any attempt to recapture the magic will always be doomed to fail. Or perhaps all Sonnenfeld, Smith and Jones ever needed to do was let the original be and allow somebody else take a crack at the series. With Men in Black: International however, as directed by F. Gary Gray and featuring an all-new cast, comes yet another instalment in a franchise that still cannot justify its own continuation.

The same surface elements are there. We have a mismatched duo in the level-headed rookie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and the devil-may-care pro Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), some big-budget special effects, and a tone that attempts to thread the needle between buddy comedy, action movie thrills and campy sci-fi. What appears to be missing is an adequate understanding of how the first movie employed those components to make it as enjoyable as it was. When Agent M (or Molly) comes to the secret agency’s London branch (after having learned of their existence and successfully applied to be recruited) and meets her new partner, a celebrated agent who saved the world once before, the spark that the two actors shared in Thor: Ragnarok is entirely absent. The movie doesn’t seem to get that in order for a mismatched double act to work, there needs to be enough contrast to fuel both the comedic and dramatic sides of things. Agents J and K worked well together because it was so much fun to watch the cockiness and immaturity of the former clash with the formality and humourlessness of the latter and there was also ample room for both characters to grow. This movie however doesn’t impart enough of a personality to either character for such a rapport to develop; Agent M is overly confident in herself but not to the point of outright arrogance while Agent H is a maverick but not to the point that he needs to be reined in. The most conflict we get between the two comes in snide remarks and knowing looks.

When it is discovered that the Men in Black (a name that inspires a mildly funny exchange between Agent M and her boss Agent O (Emma Thompson)) has been infiltrated by a mole, it is up to the rookie and her hunky partner to track them down. The case takes them all over the world from Marrakesh to Paris to Naples and along the way there are plenty of action scenes to be had, high-tech gadgets to be used, and weird-looking aliens to meet. It’s a convoluted plot that involves an alien race called the Hive of which we learn little, a three-armed femme fatale named Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), and a tiny weapon capable of Death Star levels of destruction. The movie mostly concerns itself with world building on the mistaken belief that complicating the story is the same thing as making it more interesting. Instead we get a film at odds with itself as it tries to make sense of its own mess. One major plot point is how Agent H has never been the same since the celebrated mission when he and his former partner High T (Liam Neeson) saved the world, a point that holds little water when you compare Hemsworth’s performance in the opening flashback to the rest of the film. On both occasions he plays the role of the dashing hero leaping head first into battle and always wearing a cocky smile. If there was any change in his behaviour, it escaped me.

What the film needed to focus on far more pressingly was the comedy, of which there is depressingly little save for the odd comment made by a tiny, Jiminy-Cricket-looking alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Even if the plot made any kind of sense on its own terms, it wouldn’t matter a bit if the audience didn’t have any fun watching it. The movie gives its two leads little in the way of actual jokes, opting instead for the kind of light, semi-improvisatory banter that tends to prevail in American comedies nowadays, trusting that the stars’ shared charisma and chemistry will be enough to carry the audience through. In a big-budget sci-fi romp that’s constantly rushing from one action set-piece to the next, these scenes grow increasingly meagre and tedious in their aimlessness and failure to add any spark or energy to a movie already lacking in such sensation. Gray, who boasts an adequate enough filmography to feel like a safe bet for this kind of title, directs the movie with the kind of perfunctory competence that is the lifeblood of passable movies. Passable, however, is the wrong approach for a property this weird; the Men in Black universe demands the touch of a director who can transmit a wackier, more cartoonish personality than what Gray has to offer. His style, if it can even be called that, feels far too routine and indifferent.

Too much of Men in Black: International feels calculated in its course rather than inspired. Towards the end as the film starts to realise that it needs to offer some kind of emotional payoff, it suddenly takes a turn and plays around with vague ideas that feel like they were half-heartedly thrown it at the last minute. It’s not even terribly clear what ideas the movie is trying to impart, but as things start to slow down and the music starts playing it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be moved by whatever is happening on screen. I guess there’s something about love or friendship there, although it isn’t really clear which since the film never quite makes its mind up on whether it wants Agents M and H to be understood as love interests or if their relationship is to remain strictly platonic. There’s also some hint of a past trauma that one of them is supposed to overcome, but that whole arc is so confused that it’s difficult to say for sure. The reason these themes are so difficult to define is because they are so largely concerned with indefinitely elaborated relationships and underwritten characters. Whatever ideas this film has on its mind, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring them beyond the minimum required for whatever they think constitutes an emotional beat. So long as it feels like something significant has been said or done, it doesn’t really matter what that is; that’s how little this movie cares about anything beyond the bottom line.


Straight Outta Compton

Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff

It is often the case that when musical biopics are made they will seek to depict the lives and works of their subjects without attempting any deeper insight into their psyches or using their stories to depict a greater, overarching narrative. What results is effectively a ‘greatest hits’ story that, while often pleasant and even entertaining, does not leave much of a resounding impact on the viewer, nor does it challenge or inspire them in any profound way. I think this is why I enjoyed watching Straight Outta Compton so much; because it isn’t merely a story about five famous musicians who started a famous band with some famous songs, it is an exposé about a band of rebels who found a unique and belligerent voice and overcame the odds and adversities that they faced to deliver a radical message about challenging authority and being true to one’s self and one’s roots. Whether or not you’re a fan of rap music isn’t the point. This isn’t a film about Dr. Dre or Ice Cube or even about N.W.A, this film is about the statement that they made together, the antagonistic forces that stood in their way, and why that statement matters.

Straight Outta Compton depicts the lives of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the five Compton boys who together created the band N.W.A., one of the most significant and revolutionary groups in hip-hop and rap history. Growing up in a dangerous neighbourhood in which poverty, drugs, gang violence and police discrimination are ever present, these young men find themselves in a state of disgruntlement and frustration and seek to vent and express their anger and aggravation through music. Following their successful debut the group catches the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a big time music manager who undertakes to take them to the top. The band wins much popularity and notoriety for their hardcore beats, aggressive lyrics and provocative subjects as they seek to deliver a confrontational message and kick off a social revolution that will reverberate throughout the country and forever change the face of rap music.

One thing this film gets absolutely spot on is its main characters. The five members of N.W.A. are perfectly cast and share a dynamic chemistry that is both substantial and believable. Given that I wasn’t very familiar with this group or its music prior to watching this film I cannot account for its authenticity. However I do think that what the film presented worked very well in its own context and I found these characters to be fully relatable and interesting. At the centre of it all is Dre, the aspiring musician who shows a strong talent for the craft and a keen aptitude for the business and who remains the level-headed voice of reason in the erupting feud that threatens to break up the band. Eazy-E is the cocky, charismatic hustler who, upon discovering almost by accident what a gift he has for rapping, embarks on a wild journey that sadly ends in tragedy. Ice Cube (played by his staggeringly identical-looking son) is the hard-as-nails rapper with a strong presence and a fiery temper to match the band’s scorching songs. The downside is that these three characters stand firmly in the film’s spotlight while DJ Yella and MC Ren are unceremoniously brushed to the side. As much as I enjoyed watching the exploits of the three main characters, it would’ve been nice if the other two had been given more prominent roles and were allowed to leave a more lasting impact.

To me what really set this film apart is the way it addresses the social issues that the members of N.W.A. faced and how they set to combat those issues by speaking out through their music. Early on the film presents the audience with examples of the hardships these young men and many others like them have had to endure their entire lives; violence in their neighbourhoods, low-income jobs, hostility from the police and a hundred other obstacles that threaten to suppress and engulf them. These five are frustrated, enraged and pissed off and they have decided not to take it any more. Through their music they are able to express their hardships through brutally honest lyrics about violence and aggression that reflect the harsh world they have to live in. Songs like Express Yourself and Fuck the Police are loud, explicit and confrontational because that is what it takes for their voices to be heard. There is something intensely raw and authentic about this film’s mood that makes it an astonishing viewing experience.

Although this film is produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, it doesn’t feel like a vanity project. While the film may not necessarily be the complete and utter truth and parts of the story were likely tweaked to deliver a more positive spin on the main characters, I still feel like the film’s spirit is nevertheless true to the message it is trying to deliver. While the film does make a deliberate attempt to portray the members of N.W.A. in as positive (possibly even heroic) a light as it can, the light is nevertheless imperfect. These men understand that they are not saints and make no claims to be such. They only claim to be telling the truth, nothing more and nothing less. Their flaws and vices are important parts of who they are and reflect where it is where they are from and what sort of lives they have had. They are not trying to tell anyone what they should think or how they should live their lives; they are simply five men from Compton who have a statement to make and they are damn well going to say it whatever the consequences. The result is a provocative film with a powerful message that remains relevant today.