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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Thor: Ragnarok

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost


Sometimes I find it hard to believe that just a couple of years ago I was starting to feel fatigued by the abundance of superheroes in cinema. When Age of Ultron came out, it felt like the MCU was beginning to run out of steam and that this would be the beginning of the superhero genre’s decline. But then Civil War happened. And then Deadpool. And then Wonder Woman. And then Logan. The resurgence of superhero movies over the last two years has been astonishing. I keep telling myself with each new MCU release to remain critical and to not get swept away with the hype, but with their subsequent releases of Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy II, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, they’ve been on a hot streak that shows no sign of slowing down. Now with Thor: Ragnarok they’ve knocked it out of the park once again and my inner twelve-year-old self is doing cartwheels and screaming with delight.

After an unsuccessful search for the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard upon learning that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer there. There he finds his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) impersonating their father and orders him to reveal where he is hidden. They find Odin on Earth where they learn that he is dying and that his passing will allow his firstborn child Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from the prison where he has held her for millennia. Hela emerges upon Odin’s death, destroys Thor’s hammer, dispatches of her brothers and makes her way to Asgard to begin her conquest. Thor winds up on the planet Sakaar where he is captured by the bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a prisoner of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He is made to fight as a gladiator and is reunited in the arena with his good friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). However Asgard and its people, under the care of Heimdall (Idris Elba), remain in danger and so Thor makes it his duty to assemble a team and defeat Hela.

Even though Thor has always been one of the Marvel franchise’s most enjoyable heroes and Loki remains the undisputed champion of the MCU villain hierarchy, neither of the Thor movies have been particularly great. It always bothered me that Marvel had this wondrous mythological-fantasy universe at its disposal and yet insisted on moving the action to Earth with its familiar settings and (relative) realism and Jane Fosters. There is none of that here. Ragnarok fully embraces its realm of sci-fi/fantasy and is never afraid to go too big or too crazy. The movie draws its inspiration from the campy fantasies and space operas of the 70s and 80s like Logan’s Run and Flash Gordon and creates what truly feels like a comic-book universe. The costumes, sets and scenery are extravagant and cartoonish, the retro-techno music perfectly complements this disco neon-lit pop art sci-fi tone they’re going for, and the colours are so saturated you’d swear you were on a Magical Mystery Tour with the Beatles. Sure, the CGI landscapes, creatures, and battles don’t look at all real, but man do they look great.

This movie takes on a much more comedic tone than the non-Ant-Man Marvel movies are used to, thus requiring Hemsworth to put his comedy chops to the test, and he seriously delivers. As the macho, charming, ridiculously handsome god of thunder Hemsworth has always been fun and likeable but here he reaches new heights and makes Thor seem more human than ever before, whether he’s thoughtfully reflecting on his responsibility to his people that he has thus far neglected or he’s bumbling around like a goofball. Hiddleston is as good as ever as the devilish trickster Loki whose leanings between good and evil are forever going back and forth minute by minute, as is Ruffalo who shines in his dual roles as the exasperated Banner and the reckless Hulk. (In an odd twist akin to Deadpool being the best of all the X-Men movies (before Logan anyway) Thor has provided us with the best Hulk movie to date). Thompson holds her own as the hard-boiled Valkyrie admirably, Goldblum with his idiosyncratic tics and unique line deliveries is wonderfully employed, and Blanchett… what can I even say about her? Some actors can chew scenery; Blanchett devours entire sets and looks fabulous doing it.

This is the Thor movie I’ve been waiting for and it was well worth the wait. It was funny, exciting, colourful and utterly rewatchable. The dramatic moments might not have been particularly deep and parts of the plot might have been a little predictable, especially in the third act, but that’s okay. Sometimes all a great movie needs to be is great fun. Thor: Ragnarok is so much fun to watch that even the jokes I had already seen several times in the trailer, like Thor’s reaction when he meets Hulk in the arena (“I know him! He’s a friend from work!”), still got a laugh out of me because Hemsworth is just that good. The last couple of years have been an interesting time for superhero cinema and have seen some real gamechangers to the genre. Thor: Ragnarok is not one of those gamechangers, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, all you need is an awesome protagonist battling a fire demon while ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin plays. This movie has that, and then some.

★★★★★

Creed

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington


Rocky is the classic underdog story. The reason it has struck a chord with so many viewers and has remained an American classic is because of what Rocky’s journey represents, both for himself and for the audience. The story of a bum who never thought he’d amount to anything being given a shot at the world title appeals to the ideal of a ‘nobody’ becoming a ‘somebody’ through hard work, endurance and heart. In many ways Rocky is the story of the American Dream. One of the challenges facing Creed is that it has to somehow tell that same story without repeating it. It has to be true to the spirit of the original film while still telling its own story in order to truly come into itself as a reboot of an iconic classic. Under Coogler’s direction Creed succeeds admirably both as a sequel and as its own movie and is more than a worthy successor to the Rocky franchise.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitamite son of the late Apollo Creed, the heavyweight world champion, who is adopted and raised by Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Growing up in the shadow of his father Adonis dreams of becoming a great fighter as well but wants to do so in his own name. Having grown up in a wealthy background though, nobody will give him the chance he needs because he’s never known what it’s like to fight out of necessity. Adonis travels to Philadelphia in order to track down his father’s former opponent and good friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) who is now retired and managing a restaurant named after his late wife. He also meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who also dreams of making a name for herself. When Rocky reluctantly agrees to take him under his wing, a life-changing opportunity is presented to them that could be the making or the unmaking of Adonis Creed.

What this film cleverly does through Adonis’ story is provide an underdog’s journey that is not a repeat of Rocky’s but is instead a parallel. Rocky was a poor, modest fighter who resigned himself to a life of unrealised dreams and potential until he was given an opportunity to show everyone what he could really do. Adonis has grown up with all the advantages that Rocky never had and is as aimless as Rocky was. Nobody will give him the chance to prove himself because nobody believes that he has what it takes. Adonis has to fight in order to prove that he isn’t what anyone else says he is and that the only person who can define him is himself. This is a battle that he has to fight both on and off the ring as he sets out to prove himself to the world. What makes this film work is that, much like how Adonis does not try to live off his father’s name, this film doesn’t try to live off Rocky’s name. It tries to tell its own story with its own character in its own way while still honouring its roots. Creed is a Rocky film in spirit but in everything else it is a Creed movie.

Michael B. Jordan is unstoppable in this film. The determination and grit he shows as Adonis is astonishing. We see that he admires the father that he never knew and tries to emulate him in his journey to become a fighter. He doesn’t want the Creed name to be what gets him there though, so this is something he has to accomplish as himself. Perhaps this because he doesn’t want his name to be the only part of him that people will ever see or maybe it’s because he feels that he has to earn the Creed name before he can wear it. All he knows is that fighting is what he has to do and no one is going to tell him otherwise. Stallone delivers a career best performance in his return as a retired Rocky Balboa. He plays him as a man who has truly lived a fighter’s life. He has known happiness and pain, love and loss, and success and failure, and he looks back at it all now without regret. When Adonis comes into his life and asks him to be his mentor, that’s when Rocky decides that perhaps he’s got one more fight left in him after all. Also worthy of praise is Bianca, a love-interest who isn’t just a love-interest (a rare species in films). She is a complete character with a personality, a story and a purpose.

The underdog story has been done to death in film and yet Creed manages to make it feel fresh and new. It had me rooting for Adonis every step of the way yet there was never a point when I thought that his victory was a sure thing. Just like in the original Rocky this film allows the viewer to really follow this character and to learn what this chance means to him. You feel the effort he puts in as he fights through blood, toil, sweat and tears to prove himself. Every hit he takes is a blow and every punch he lands is a victory. Creed is packed with powerful boxing matches and stunning training montages and possesses that raw intensity that Ryan Coogler is so good at capturing. This could have gone very badly very easily but, against all odds, Creed is a resounding triumph.

★★★★★