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“Men in Black International”: In Praise of Pawny

Pawny!

Pawny gives his film debut one thumb way up!

I had no intention of seeing Men in Black International, but a funny thing happened while waiting for it to show up on basic cable three times a week.

Ever since the Blade Runner 2049 debacle, I’ve curtailed my visits to the theater closest to our house and spent most of my moviegoing dollars in the next town over. Last week I received an email from their frequent-watching club, despairing that I’ve only been there twice so far in 2019 and, as incentive to pretty please come back we miss you omg we’re dying over here, they loaded a free movie pass onto my card. That was unexpected, but nice of them…though the pass had a one-week expiration date and this week’s lineup was four movies I’ve already seen and written about, one R-rated comedy that was not quite tempting enough, and lots of dross in varying amounts of CG.

After fifteen minutes of severe overthinking, I cleared my head, blinked a few times, and lined up for the one with Thor and Valkyrie in it.

Short version for the unfamiliar: After the events of the last three films, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are nowhere to be found except in archival photos. The organization that once comprised slick, intergalactic ICE agents has changed because in this climate they’d be absolutely impossible to make apolitically cool. Sometimes they still stop evil aliens in their tracks, but mostly they’re bodyguards and entertainment liaisons for alien dignitaries.

Enter Tessa Thompson (Creed, Annihilation, Veronica Mars season 2) as Molly, a young New Yorker who once had an encounter with the MIB and an alien in her childhood that no one wiped from her memories. With her life changed forever, she spent the next twenty years in deep STEM education and intensive UFO research, hoping one day to join their double-secret ranks and work with inexplicable weirdos from beyond. Obviously her long-term plan works or else there wouldn’t be a movie. She’s given the code name “M” but has no overt ties to Judi Dench except total impatience with idiot males.

Her rewards for breaking into supposedly elite headquarters are expensive suits, an inadequate training montage that’s more about fashion than action-movie skills, and an assignment in London that pairs her with her old Ragnarok cohort Chris Hemsworth. His flippant, neglectfully casual agent H has no preparation to him, just a breezy ‘tude and the constant retelling of his one great anecdote in which he and his old partner personally saved the entire planet. These two have nothing in common except their eponymous uniforms, but they’re soon embroiled in a tricky case involving murderous alien dancers, a slaughtered chess-piece kingdom, a sci-fi MacGuffin, and, most vexing of all, a mole inside MIBI itself. Can these two young A-listers save the galaxy without Marvel CG artists around to direct their fights for them?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The “mole” subplot is not exactly the film’s least uninteresting aspect. The list of suspects is:

  • Taken superstar Liam Neeson as Agent H’s old partner Agent High T, now the kindly head of MIBI who keeps bending over backwards to give H second, third, tenth, and forty-sixth chances no matter how many times he screws up
  • Rafe Spall (The Big Short, Life of Pi) as uptight Agent C, a jerkity-jerk jerk whose jerky jerkiness bellows “GUILTY OF SOMETHING” so you’ll keep your eyes fixed on him
  • Emma Thompson, returning from MIB3 as Agent O for roughly four (4) minutes of screen time
  • Dozens of other unnamed agents

Based on this summary, my wife deduced the culprit on her first guess. She didn’t see the film, but she holds a master’s degree in Law of Economy of Characters.

Also returning from MIB history is Tim Blaney, the voice of the moderately iconic Frank the Pug, albeit for a mere cameo that answers a question I asked seven years ago. That old sidekick is swept aside in favor of a cute, merchandisable newcomer named Pawny, who tasks himself with accompanying Agent M on her misadventures after his old job is violently downsized. The little scene-stealer is gifted with the voice of Kumail Nanjiani, whose action-comedy Stuber is also now in theaters. It may not be earning as much box office as MIBI, but it may ironically end up more profitable as long as they didn’t overpay Dave Bautista.

Rebecca Ferguson (the fifth and sixth Mission: Impossibles) shows up as an old flame of H’s who, along with a special-effects surprise, enlivens the film’s best fight scene. Kayvan Novak (FX’s What We Do in the Shadows) has a few fun moments as a Moroccan vendor with an untamed beard, and more fun incognito as other passersby. Additional actors buried under layers of computer scribbles include Spencer Wilding (Darth Vader from Rogue One) as an alien thug in the right place at the right time.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include and are largely limited to:

  • Lying: always bad or sometimes good?
  • Secrets: awful business or necessary evil?
  • Coasting on your old glories can look kind of sad after a while
  • Shop for your new Lexus at Lexus.com or find a Lexus dealer near you! As seen in Men in Black International, now in theaters!

…otherwise this is unabashed popcorn-flick territory, with rubbery creatures and shiny tech and big explosions and so on. It’s also a working vacation for Hemsworth and Thompson, a chance to show them off in tailored suits and of course sunglasses, that beloved cliché and signifier of artificial coolness.

Pawny!

Normally I mock this sort of blatantly for-the-kids walking Happy Meal toy of a character, but…honestly, he won the movie.

Nitpicking? The original MIB trilogy was a mixed bag, and MIBI doesn’t add much depth to what passes for its “mythology” except a James Bond travel itinerary. In this case “International” means stops in London, Paris, Marrakesh, and Naples. If you look them up on a globe and exclude the NYC prologue, “International” takes Our Heroes to a maximum of two (2) of Earth’s 24 time zones.

It’s the first chapter without director Barry Sonnenfeld (credited as an “executive producer” figurehead) and production designer Bo Welch, who are together incapable of a boring visual aesthetic (see also: Pushing Daisies, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). Incoming director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Fate of the Furious) doesn’t deviate from what worked before, but doesn’t orchestrate much of an upgrade. The overall results suffer from occasionally weak CG and barely rise to the production values of a pricey Top-40 video.

Beyond the litany of quibbles strewn all over the preceding sections, other distractions included shoddy looped quips that imply a bit of desperation in post-production; the shenanigans of a poorly managed worldwide consortium with a terrible training program and no evidence that underperforming agents are ever held accountable; and villains whose only concrete forms are twins with very little acting practice and nebulous drawings that reminded me of the wretched Galactus cloud from the least-worst Fantastic Four film.

MIBI is, as I suspected from the get-go, the sort of subpar spectacle that I don’t care to pay full price for if I can help it. It’s not egregiously awful, but saddening because we’re in a privileged age when big-budget sci-fi doesn’t have to settle for being this rote or superficial.

So what’s to like? In a Wednesday night screening with ten of us in attendance, including three minors, that plucky Pawny was the only character to earn audible laughs from anyone. Honorable mention went to the trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate, which made two teen guys in my row chuckle because they thought it was a stupid name. Congrats to the esteemed Mr. Nanjiani for his decisive comedy victory. If I were 8, I’d probably go for a talking Pawny doll. (A quick online check confirms that yes, there is a Pawny Funko Pop. This makes me glad.)

Little flourishes offer hope of an eventual MIBI good-parts supercut on YouTube someday. Beyond Pawny the exemplar, there’s also Ferguson’s brawl (though it felt a bit lopsided), some welcome showiness from Thompson when time permits, and the last few minutes after the standard CG-climax hubbub, in which we’re reminded Hemsworth has other acting settings. As Hemsworth dudebros go, Bad Times at the El Royale was better, but he still has his charms. And in general, MIBI beats MIB2, for all that’s worth.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Men in Black International end credits, though I noted one of the hundreds of credited artists had the same name as an Apollo 13 astronaut, which is about as close as the film gets to a relationship with actual outer space.

And if you’re interested in learning more about one of the film’s most important costars, there’s a page on Lexus.com that summarizes specs and features for Our Heroes’ very special Lexus flying car. See it in action in Men in Lexus International, starring Lexus and the cast of Thor: Ragnarok!

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