Film of the week: Men in Black: International
Men in Black: International (12A, 115mins) **
The word fitful neatly describes the Men in Black movie series. Four films spread over 22 years hardly suggests a franchise in huge demand, and the enterprise ought to have died a natural death in 2002, when a watery sequel to the original 1997 film made a decent amount of money but was picked apart disdainfully by critics.
In this age of sequels, however, any vaguely familiar story trumps a good, original idea, and a lacklustre 2012 revival is followed by this spin-off that attempts to pass the MIB mantle to a younger cast.
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Like almost everything else on your cinema screens at the moment, it all started with a comic book, Lowell Cunningham's rather grungy neo-noir trilogy about an international espionage organisation dedicated to keeping vampires, zombies and alien interlopers in line. It first was published in 1990, and when Marvel bought it in 1994, a movie spin-off became inevitable.
The unexpected chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones did wonders for the first film, which blended their mismatched buddy routine with colourful CGI monsters. MIBs 2 and 3 were by comparison ordinary, but competent, and Men in Black: International is the first film that dispenses with the services of Messrs Smith and Jones entirely. Do they get away with it? Not really.
Tessa Thompson (Creed, Selma) is Molly, a bright and determined young woman whose quest to get to the bottom of a strange childhood incident leads her to MIB. When she was small, Molly's parents were visited by the MIB after finding a small but mischievous alien in their backyard.
The agents used neuralyzers to wipe her parents' memories, but didn't realise the little girl saw the alien as well: Molly has spent her adult life trying to track the agency down, and when she succeeds, Agent O (Emma Thompson), the head of the US division, decides to hire her.
After Molly (now Agent M) is sent to London on her first mission, UK boss High T (Liam Neeson) assigns her to work with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a cocky operative with a big reputation who lives it large and appears to have mistaken himself for James Bond. When an affable alien friend of H's is attacked by electrically charged assassins, it gives a small shiny object to Molly, and asks her to guard it with her life.
It only turns out to be the most powerful weapon in the universe, sought by all and sundry for reasons uniformly bad. As she and H are chased around southern Italy and across the Sahara Desert, Molly begins to wonder why the alien had entrusted her and not its friend H with the priceless package, and meanwhile back in London, Agent C (Rafe Spall) is having similar doubts. All roads lead to Paris, and the top of the Eiffel Tower, where an incident some years back involving Agents H and T is about to have serious ramifications.
As in all the MIB films, computer-generated effects are used early and often. When traveling from New York to London, agents don't use anything as banal as a plane. Instead, Molly boards a New York subway train which then transforms into an angry-looking missile that catapults her across the Atlantic to old Blighty.
"Something's not right in London," Agent O darkly muttered before her departure, a possible reference to the rise of that peroxide windsock Boris Johnson, but more probably an indication that MIB UK has a mole.
Colourful aliens pop into view, most amusingly in the case of 'Pawnie', a small and chatty living chess piece who offers withering assessments of Agent H's performance. There's lots of furious activity: car chases, fist fights with extraterrestrials, terrifying portals into the depths of the universe, but none of it engages the viewer for long in a muddled film that's trying way too hard.
Good actors shuffle dead-eyed through the middle of this production: Liam Neeson, in what may till recently have been a larger role, looks as though someone just hypnotised him, Tessa Thompson struggles to bring her thinly drawn character to life, and even Mr. Hemsworth's knack for breezy comedy fails him. He seems uncomfortable here, off the pace, sensing perhaps that this is one script he should never have said yes to.
Emma Thompson could emerge from a soap powder commercial with her dignity intact, and almost made me believe there's such a thing as the MIB. But otherwise this is a tired, formulaic and hacked about confection, the death knell surely for a franchise that no one ever really fell in love with.
Diego Maradona (15A, 130mins) ****
As if Kapadia's evocative documentary uses period footage and thoughtful voiceovers, giving us a balanced picture of the great footballer's life. Born and raised in a Buenos Aires shantytown, Maradona fought his way up from the gutter and, due to his Native American heritage, endured racial abuse when he came to Europe. The first real footballing superstar, he came into his own at Napoli, lifting the club out of the relegation zone and winning them two Serie A titles, a Copa Italia and the UEFA Cup. But his fondness for cocaine led him into the arms of the Camorra, and a career-destroying scandal.
We the Animals (No Cert, IFI, 93mins) ****
The joys and fears of childhood are wonderfully evoked in this intensely and painterly drama from Jeremiah Zagar. It is based on a 2011 semi-autobiographical novel by Justin Torres, and set in the 1990s in a ratty town in upstate New York, where three young brothers live with their Puerto Rican parents. The story is told through the eyes of Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest brother who's about to turn 10. He draws compulsively, is sensitive, and struggles to come to terms with the ups and downs of his parents' volatile relationship. Shot mainly in grainy 16mm, We the Animals draws you into an intimate, frightening world.
Films coming soon
Toy Story 4 (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, John Ratzenberger, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn); Brightburn (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones); Child's Play (Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman).