‘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.

‘Happy Death Day 2U’ review: A risky genre-bending exercise

Happy Death Day 2U as a go-for-broke sequel has a bunch of hit or miss ideas under its belt.

The following review contains major spoilers from Happy Death Day and minor spoilers from Happy Death Day 2U.

One of Blumhouse’s low-budget breakout films in 2017, Happy Death Day, is a high-concept, black-comedy slasher flick that can be easily explained as a mashup of Groundhog Day and Scream. In the film, an obnoxious college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself reliving the same events of her birthday (“Monday the 18th”) only to be murdered by the end of it. After trying and dying for eleven times, she finally figures out who the ‘Babyface Killer’ is – her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) – and kills her before she does, thereby successfully breaking the time loop. Or so she thought.

While the film could’ve worked as a stand-alone, its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, answers the loose threads of the first film, more specifically, the cause of the strange, recurring phenomena. Turns out, Ryan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Tree’s love interest Carter (Israel Broussard), has been working on a quantum reactor that backfired and affected Tree whose within close proximity. Now HDD2U’s trailer may suggest that she somehow gets sent back to the same loophole again but what the trailer disguises is that Tree actually gets sucked to an alternate reality of her “Monday the 18th.” Yes, this sequel pushes the boundary to sci-fi territory and works on the concept of a multiverse. If you’re caught up with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse or The Flash TV series, this should not be confusing.

The gang tries to crack the time loop formula in ‘Happy Death Day 2U.’ L-R: Israel Broussard (Carter), Phi Vu (Ryan), Sarah Yarkin (Dre), Suraj Sharma (Samar) and Jessica Rothe (Tree).

Regardless, the film explains the proceedings to its viewers by utilizing the roles of Ryan and his coalition of science geeks to spell out the scientific mumbo jumbo behind it. With the alternate dimension in play, the circumstances are now different: there’s a change in relationship among the characters, the ‘Babyface Killer’ is no longer Lori, and each death makes Tree weaker. Part of Tree’s ordeal is not only to figure out who the new killer is, but also to find a way to get back to her original and now normal dimension, “Tuesday the 19th.”

For better or worse, HDD2U is distinctly goofier than its predecessor. Writer-director Christopher Landon recognizes the need to add something fresh to his running gimmick by unabashedly transitioning the sequel to sci-fi comedy, even referencing Back to the Future II to show the film’s level of self-awareness. And the tonal shift does not end there – in an attempt to add more fun and substance, the screenplay haphazardly moves to college romance, family drama, heist then finally, slapstick comedy. This apparent genre-bending exercise can be a deal-breaker to some but for the most part, it contributes to the film’s zaniness. True to its core, HDD2U feels like an alternate and bonkers version of the first film.

Confronting the original ‘Babyface Killer.’ L-R: Broussard, Ruby Modine (Lori), Vu and Rothe.

The risks that the film takes does not always pay off. Once again, we are left with even more plot holes and loose threads, and the film’s horror elements are deliberately placed in the backseat – a huge disappointment for those who are out for blood and scares. Had Landon found a way to make the masked killer more integral to the plot, this would feel more as an organic sequel. Compared to the first film where Tree is always racing against time, there’s less urgency here given that the story is busy delving into its comical and sci-fi elements.

It is Rothe’s delightful and versatile performance that mostly binds the franchise together. From a character perspective, the first film feels earned due to her redemptive arc from being an insensitive b*tch to a kick-ass heroine. This sequel gives her the opportunity to wrestle with more internal conflicts, thereby adding more emotional depth to Tree. Her frustration and anger remain to be played for amusement but unlike other ‘death’-centric films such as Final Destination, she never feels like a doomed pawn. The character feels empowered knowing that she’s in the joke and she can reset the day anytime she wanted to. Hence when it comes to her creative and brilliantly edited suicide montage – including a fashionable skydive in bikini, this is where the film truly shines as a dark comedy.

The Quantum Reactor. Broussard and Rothe in ‘Happy Death Day 2U.’

Happy Death Day 2U can definitely use another sitting in the screenplay editing room. While it has the big balls to subvert more expectations in its genre, it’s a flawed affair. Its sci-fi elements won’t fare against scrutiny (not that the film asks you to sweat on the details), it occasionally forgets the standard landmarks to be a slasher film, and it’s definitely at its weakest when it tries to force a soulmate level of romance between Tree and Carter (cue in those cringy kissing scenes!) Otherwise, it is one of those sequels that somehow retroactively improves the original. How fascinating is that.

A third film is teased through a Marvel-esque post-credit scene – an implication that the ride will only get more bizarre and much larger in scope from where it started. It’s something that I’ll definitely watch just to see how it all ends. But frankly, at this point, the franchise already starts to show strain from the ‘time loop fatigue’ that a third film could either keep the whole thing tighter or let it collapse under the weight of its ideas.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed and written by Christopher Landon, ‘Happy Death Day 2U‘ stars Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rachel Matthews, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Ruby Modine, Steve Zissis, and Charles Aitken. Run time: 100 minutes.