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.

★★

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Silence

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese


Although this is just the third time in his illustrious career, after The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, that Scorsese has depicted a centrally religious story, one need only look at his other movies to see how strongly the themes and symbols of Silence resonate in his filmography. In the many gangster films and thrillers that he is best known for directing, Scorsese has depicted such themes as sin, perdition, weakness, hypocrisy, reckoning and deliverance and has done so with great artistry and conviction. In Silence however, a film that was decades in the making and clearly a passion project of his, these themes are confronted in a challenging, relentless, punishing way unlike anything he has made before. Scorsese has basically made a career out of displaying the dark side of people and the violence they inflict, but this is a film that cuts on an entirely deeper, more emotional level. This picture is ruthless, demanding and excruciating and it is one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. If Scorsese could be regarded as the American Kurosawa (in terms of prestige and significance to cinema), then Silence is his Ran.

Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) leave Portugal for feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is believed that Ferreira has forsaken his vows after being tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a rumour that the two priests desperately hope will prove to be unfounded. They reach the island with the help of the drunken fisherman Kichijiro (Yösuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian undergoing a crisis of faith, and find the village of Tomogi where the townsfolk worship the Christian faith in secret. The arrival of the priests proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the villagers as they are now able to receive sacraments but are also now in danger of being discovered by the Japanese authorities who have been tasked with purging Christianity from their land. As the Japanese Christians suffer torment and death at the hands of the samurais, the two priests can only watch helplessly in silence until they too are finally captured. As captives of the Japanese governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the priests are subjected to unimaginable pain as their faith is put to the ultimate test.

As these two priests are tortured and bear witness to the torture of others they are forced to ask themselves painful questions, only to find themselves woefully without answers. How much suffering can a man endure to preserve his faith and how much should he have to endure in the name of his merciful, benevolent God? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others continue to suffer or to renounce one’s faith so that they might be spared? However brutal and barbaric the Japanese people’s methods are, are they right to view this Western religion as a corrosive influence on their own culture? Scorsese doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions nor does he ever try to provide one. There is no secret answer to the tests these priests are forced to go through, there is no divine inspiration or enlightened resolve; there is only helpless screaming and futile protest, followed by silence. The film does not condemn or condone, it doesn’t judge or absolve, and it doesn’t vilify or idolise. It creates a severely authentic and mesmerising experience for the audience that allows them to understand the thoughts and emotions behind these questions. The point isn’t to provide viewers with the answers; it’s to fuel their contemplation.

It takes a master director to create this kind of cinematic experience and there are few, living or dead, who deserve that title more than Scorsese. Another director might have opted to display the violent content of this film graphically, loudly and up close in order to try and create a more visceral experience, the way Mel Gibson did for instance in his own tale of religious violence, The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese however shows that some scenes can be even more emotionally devastating and unbearable when exercising restraint. Distance is used to emphasise helplessness and the absence of a divine presence. A slow pace is used to heighten the tension and prolong the agony. Silence is used to drive home the cruel finality of death and the unfeeling indifference of the world these characters inhabit. Scorsese goes beyond spectacle to create an engrossing, authentic, emotional experience. This isn’t a movie that the viewer watches; it is one that they endure and are affected by.

Silence is certainly a difficult film to watch which is why it likely won’t get the same level of popularity as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, if time is kind to this film and it gets hailed as a classic years from now, maybe it will earn the same level of esteem and commemoration as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It definitely deserves to. The film is utterly gut wrenching and truly profound. It certainly feels like more of a personal film for Scorsese than many of his most recent projects, as if he himself has been undergoing a deeply intense crisis of faith in the decades it has taken him to complete this film. With all of the horrific trials, tribulations and atrocities he portrays and the tortuously confounding nature of the questions raised, I can only imagine the amount of soul searching Scorsese must have gone through while making this picture. The result is one of the most magnificent and enigmatic films of his prolific career and certainly one of the best films of 2016.

★★★★★

Run All Night

Cast: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Writer: Brad Ingelsby


Marking his third collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, Run All Night marks the latest instalment in Liam Neeson’s career as an action star. At this stage the ‘Liam Neeson Action Film’ is starting to feel familiar and Neeson is certainly not getting any younger. Therefore Run All Night comes across as a little tired. It isn’t a bad film. The action is exciting enough and the characters are interesting enough, it just doesn’t have the same freshness and energy that other films like Taken had. To the film’s credit it does actually embrace this to a certain extent, portraying Neeson’s character as a tired old man at the end of his tether. Nevertheless the film still conveys a real sense of “been there, done that”.

Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) is an aging hit man who, after decades of working under the employ of the notorious mobster and his childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), is now haunted by the memories of his crimes and of the lives he has taken. By living a life of crime Jimmy was forced to leave his family, an action for which his estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) has never forgiven him. Mike is now a limo driver who spends his spare time at the gym training young boxers. He is happily married with two kids and a third on the way and lives a contented life despite the clear shadow that his father’s dishonour has cast on him. Unfortunately Mike is dragged back into the criminal world when he ends up driving a client to see Shawn Maguire’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) only to witness their deaths at his hand. When Danny resolves to cover up his tracks by killing Mike, Jimmy intervenes and kills his best friend’s son.

Jimmy phones Shawn and informs him of what he has done out of honour and loyalty but declares that he fully intends to do everything in his power to keep his son safe. Their friendship comes to an end as Shawn employs his gangsters to hunt down Mike and avenge his son. He assures Jimmy that the hunt will not stop until he knows how it feels to lose his only child. The film takes place over the course as one night as Jimmy and Mike must work together to survive Shawn’s wrath, to escape the police who are now after them and to keep the rest of Mike’s family safe. Their differences come to the surface when Jimmy is forced to confront the wrongdoings that he has inflicted on his son as the crimes of his past start to catch up with him. When Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio), an honest cop who has been after Conlon and Maguire for years, becomes aware of this case and starts actively pursuing them, Jimmy starts to wonder whether the time for him to repent and suffer the consequences for his crimes has arrived. Their scrape becomes all the more difficult when Shawn hires a professional contract killer (Common) to hunt the pair down.

The film hits the right notes as an action film. The action sequences are certainly thrilling enough. The characterisation, while not extensive, is still substantial enough for the audience to be invested. Liam Neeson can certainly still hold his own as an action star. However it is far from perfect. The film makes the mistake of opening with its climax which pretty much reveals to the audience everything they need to know about the film’s ending. While this was doubtless intended to function as a device in order to create an overlying sense of inevitability, it does, to me at least, take away from the film’s tension. The action is diminished by the awareness that these characters have to end up at a certain place and, when they do get there, the film builds up to quite a convoluted ending as it works its way through the climax. In addition the film makes a strong attempt to develop its characters by providing them with a detailed backstory, but does so in the absence of any resounding personalities. Therefore they are not particularly memorable and don’t make any sort of lasting impact.

Run All Night is not exactly a run-of-the-mill action film but it comes close. It is still an enjoyable and thrilling enough film in its own right. While the story isn’t exactly new or original, it isn’t formulaic or redundant either. While the characters are not dynamic or complex, they are not bland or lifeless. The action sequences, while not incredibly unique or innovative, are nevertheless gripping enough to be enjoyable. It is fine for what it is, which is a standard action film. This is the kind of action film that you watch if you aren’t looking for anything special and are just looking to kill a couple of hours.

★★★