‘Men in Black: International’ review: Enjoy the fun while it lasts

Like its title suggests, Men In Black: International offers plenty of globe-trotting and standard action set pieces to distract you from its bland and confusing plot.

Thanks to Thor: Ragnarok, MIB: International already has one asset under its belt: the charming chemistry of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. In here, Hemsworth continues to win you over with his dashing looks and silly antics, while Thompson balances their dynamic with her poised and confident composure. While the new leads don’t necessarily match the perfect combination of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, they’re sufficient to carry the weight of this film, even if the material lets them down. The script bears some moments of breezy humor and satire (which Taika Waititi so generously offers in Ragnarok), but more often than not, the dialogue comes out generic and forced that it would only elicit pity laughs from the kindest viewers.

The one move that MIB: International does to revamp the franchise for this feminist era is introducing its first female lead. As a young girl, Molly (Thompson) wasn’t “neuralyzed” (i.e. have someone’s short-term memory be erased) by the MIB after witnessing a supernatural sighting. Since then, she makes it her life mission to be a part of the clandestine organization, and twenty years later, she finally tracks down their headquarters and gets recruited in the process. What becomes the running joke here is rookie agent M (Molly) continually upstaging his senior, Agent H (Hemsworth). There’s much discussion of how Agent H is no longer the skilled agent he once was, but not much history is shown on screen to actually see the difference. As far as we’re concerned, H mostly uses his charm to wriggle his way out of a sticky situation, while M is the more level headed one with reliable methods. Each has their own way of getting the job done.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) test drive an overpowered blaster.

The two take on a high stakes mission to prevent alien malevolent forces from getting their hands on an intergalactic weapon. By doing so, the film detours from the crowded markets and remote desert of Morocco, to the exotic castles in Italy. With all the globe-trotting involved, the plot starts to feel like it’s a rip-off from the James Bond franchise, except the film fails to mine the maximum tension needed. For one, this spin-off features a personality-free villain called The Twins (played by dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) – a shape-shifting celestial duo that pretty much resembles the invasive space dust in Dark Phoenix. In one scene, M and H bring out various big guns to shoot these creatures to no avail. For a blockbuster director, F. Gary Gray has shown more creative sequences in his previous work in The Fate of the Furious or The Italian Job. MIB: International, on the other hand, is filled with loud laser shootouts and mandatory car chases, all of which go against the idea of the MIB remaining anonymous to the public.

It goes without saying that the true appeal of this secret organization works best when the story is focused within a single environment, to show how extraterrestrial activities (and the covering of such) hide in plain sight. This world-building is demonstrated when H and M make their way down to an alien night club via a hidden tunnel located inside a taxi. Or that part where the film introduces its funnier creation – an anthropomorphic chess piece named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) who happens to be a pocketful of sunshine and sarcasm. These small moments, not the uninspired action sequences, is what brings the magic of the original. Only if the film sustains them throughout.

Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) pledges allegiance to Agent M.

MIB: International really should have worked as a simple plot but its strange narrative decisions make it look unnecessarily confusing. The ending feels rushed as not much time is given to build the emotional core found in the supposed father-son relationship of Agent H and his mentor, High T (Liam Neeson). The thing is, this film is under the false pretense that ‘bigger equals better’ hence its priority to showcase bland spectacles and its apparent lack of a much more ambitious goal, say injecting an insight or two about the current political or environmental landscape.

The basic ingredients for your summer blockbuster are found here but what really leaves the impression is Hemsworth and Thompson’s charismatic buddy comedy act that reminds us of the franchise’s infinite (yet squandered) potential. You can enjoy the fun while it lasts for I can guarantee you that it’s quite forgettable. No neuralyzers needed.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed by F. Gary Gray, written by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, ‘Men in Black: International‘ stars Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Liam Neeson, Rafe Spall, Rebecca Ferguson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson and Tim Blaney. 115 minutes. PG-13.

‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ review: An analog spy in a digital world

Despite going for more absurd gags, David Kerr’s ‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ struggles to justify its existence in the modern world.

In one scene in Johnny English Strikes Again, the bumbling titular hero (Rowan Atkinson), donned with full medieval armor, trips on the top of a staircase and crashes all the way down the exit while everyone else in the room acts oblivious to what just happened. It’s a shared sentiment that I have for this sequel – the humor mostly went down as cheeky, inoffensive but ultimately forgettable.

Might it be because seven years seem like a long gap for the sequel of a somewhat tired franchise? Or could it be because, even the ‘spy parody’ sub-genre requires fresh ideas more so than just shallow slapstick and escapist destination? Recent films like Paul Feig’s Spy and Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, don’t necessarily have the dumbest characters to amuse you but it’s situational, bad-luck humor nevertheless brings the category to a higher standard of comedy.

Johnny English Strikes Again, on the other hand, relies on a less-intellectual, physical comedy that’s otherwise very accessible to younger audiences, courtesy of its exceptionally dumb and accident-prone British agent Johnny English. The Prime minister (Emma Thompson) plucks him out of retirement when a vicious cyber-attack compromises the identities of every current MI7 agent. The dimwit spy, eager to prove himself again, decides that the only way to capture an enemy who operates in a digital realm is to go analog-style. So he takes his old-fashioned tools and drives his vintage Aston Martin (it has no GPS, therefore no satellite can trace it!), along with his old trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), back into action. Along the way, the film also introduces James Bond’s leading lady Olga Kurylenko in an underwritten role of a double agent. One can’t help but think that the inclusion of such actress is just to make a subtle joke.

Rowan Atkinson stars as Johnny English in JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN, a Focus Features release.

Their wacky (mis)adventures lead them to France where a lot of shenanigans and blunders are played every five minutes or so – the resulting laughs, however, are more sporadic than intended. The bad ones that elicit groans involve clumsiness and self-humiliation, like when English flambés a saucepan of shrimp and serves them as charred remains. Or that scene where he disco dances under the influence of a stimulant. In those moments, Atkinson’s more popular persona, Mr. Bean, inevitably comes into mind. The latter is a funnier creation that works on an extreme level of comedy. This film, however, waters down the humor because he can only be inept whenever the situation calls for it.

Still, there are chuckle-worthy scenes, especially when English keeps forgetting his code name. Also easily standing out is a virtual reality gag, where he loses his bearings and wanders around London, assaulting random people with baguette in the process. Director David Kerr heavily relies on Atkinson’s froggy face and gurning mannerisms to sell the comedy. By now, the actor seems to be to old for the role but he remains to be a reliable screen presence, nevertheless.

But overall, Johnny English Strikes Again does a weak attempt to further boost the appeal of its titular character. This comeback is founded on uninventive arsenal of gags, more pitched towards kids than adults. It doesn’t go far beyond that which makes it underwhelming. It may have its funny moments but considering this is a three-quel already, I’m putting it up against a tougher standard.

One can hope that the film went on a different route – in the beginning of the film, the retired spy works as a geography professor and secretly teaches his students about the art of classic espionage. It’s an interesting mix of Kingsman and The School of Rock. That might have been a more entertaining storyline.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by David Kerr, ‘Johnny English Strikes Again‘ stars Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Miller, Adam James, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Miranda Hennessy, Irena Tyshyna and David Mumeni. Run time: 89 minutes.