Men in Black: International (2019)
The Universe is Expanding
Back when movie stars actually mattered and comic book films weren’t all the rage, the mischievous sci-fi Men in Black (1997) made Will Smith a megastar, his pairing with Tommy Lee Jones (old and busted vs. the new hotness) elevating a goofy premise about a secret government organization that protects the earth from the scum of the universe (basically aliens that walk among us) named the Men in Black. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and based on the comic book series created by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers, the film made a galactic ton of cash, eventually spawning a so-so sequel in 2002 and a cartoon series that ran from 1997 to 2001. Although a lot of folks wished they could get the mediocre follow-up neuralyzed from their minds, the property found its footing again in 2012 when Men in Black 3 capped off the story of Smith and Jones’ sunglasses-wearing agents J and K fifteen years after it all began.
And to be honest, while I liked the film, it was already starting to show signs of wear back then, MIB having long passed its use by date. You see, the world had gotten bigger. The Avengers had already assembled, and the Men in Black’s problems felt like small fries when compared to the more significant threats that were attacking our world. When the franchise phase kicked into gear, Sony Pictures decided to get in on the action, having a go at reviving their Ghostbusters property with an all-female reboot. The film, however, failed to take off in the way the studio intended (despite solid reviews) — it did manage to get one thing right in Chris Hemsworth’s dopey receptionist Kevin, who’s kinda gained a weird following since. With Ghostbusters having bombed, it looks as though Sony are now shifting their attention to another IP that should have remained on the shelf, Men in Black, this time throwing Hemsworth with up-and-comer Tessa Thompson who he’s already shared the screen (and some chemistry) with in Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
The problem with this new film, though, is that it struggles to justify its existence outside of a financial one. It doesn’t give us any new insight into the organization despite going ‘international,’ and, with Sonnenfeld gone, it’s missing the quirkiness that made its predecessors so memorable. Heck, even the Hemsworth/ Thompson team up fails to spark this time around, the duo struggling to wring laughs out of a convoluted, improv laden script penned by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, the guys who wrote 2008’s Iron Man. Look, Men in Black: International isn’t a bad film, it’s definitely watchable, and more than mildly entertaining, it just feels kinda perfunctory.
Here, Tessa Thompson plays Molly (essentially a female version of Will Smith), who’s known about the Men in Black since she was a kid living in Brooklyn when the impeccably dressed agents failed to zap her memory after a cute, fuzzy alien called a Tarantian found its way into her bedroom. Since then she’s been trying to get into the FBI or the CIA or whatever to get into their extraterrestrial department, only to be met with vacant stares. It isn’t a spoiler to say that she eventually finds her way into the MIB’s New York headquarters, where she’s evaluated by Agent O (Emma Thompson), who senses something special in Molly and (dubbing her Agent M) offers her a probationary period in their London branch.
Once there she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a handsome, self-assured ‘superstar’ (think Kevin in a penguin suit) who’s still relishing his takedown of a deadly alien race known as The Hive, which he extinguished with High T (Liam Neeson), head of the UK’s MIB branch, using ‘nothing but their wits and series-70 atomizers.’ Their first mission together is to entertain an important alien playboy named Vungus (Kayvan Novak) by showing him a good time. But, when the Jababian socialite is assassinated, the dying creature hands M a mysterious box, warning her of an internal threat inside the MIB. Suspecting a mole within the organization, M chooses to put her faith in H, who, together decide to figure out what’s in the elusive cylinder whilst trying to expose the infiltrator and save the world from yet another impending invasion.
More of a remake rather than a continuation, MIB 4 sticks closely to the template of the original film — complete with a pocket-sized McGuffin to propel the narrative forward. Director F. Gary Gray, The Fate of the Furious (2017), however, lacks the bizarre mentality that made Sonnenfeld’s earlier movies really stand out, this one feeling a little smaller and much more studio produced, despite the globe-trotting escapades. A lot of the film feels as though it were shot on soundstages, while the CGI monsters rarely look like they’re sharing the same space as the humans. The finale atop the Eiffel Tower is outright boring, while a lackluster mid-movie flying motorbike chase suggests that this is a far cry from the best that F. Gary Gray can do — this is the dude who gave us 2003’s The Italian Job for Pete’s sake! Even the jokes are kinda dull and generic, some even recycled, such as the aliens-posing-as-celebrities thing.
We also get the usual ‘progressive’ politics, where the Thompsons agree that the company’s name should be more inclusive — honestly, the term ‘Men in Black’ has been a popular phrase in our wordbook for eons, relating to UFO conspiracy theories, describing mysterious agents of the government (perhaps aliens themselves) who cover things up, it’s not meant to denote gender in any way whatsoever! To change the term ‘Men in Black’ would be like renaming Big Foot because God forbid, the furball might start getting insecure about the size of his feet.
Irrespective, there’s still a bunch of cool critters to be found, including a mechanic in Marrakech whose beard is a furry slug, a pair of dangerous glowing entities played by French dancers Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), and the last remaining survivor of a miniature society of anthropomorphic chess pieces who’s named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Although the film’s advertising suggests substantial screen time for favorites like Frank the Pug and the Worms, these creatures barely appear here, thus making Pawny the duo’s new extraterrestrial companion. Thankfully, Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick (2017), does a solid job as the lil’ green guy, the talented comic delivering (pretty much) all of the film’s funniest lines. And look, I liked the tyke, despite his cutesy design suggesting that he’s in the movie just to sell toys and appeal to a much younger demographic.
Although Hemsworth and Thompson (Emma) fizzle rather than sizzle, the rest of the cast do an admirable job in trying to elevate the material they’ve been given. Emma Thompson (who reprises her role from MIB 3) is terrific as veteran agent O, her scenes being some of the film’s strongest – I kinda wish moviemakers had teamed her up with Hemsworth for a fresh old-and-wise vs. young-and-cocky spin. Rafe Spall, The Big Short (2015), is surprisingly good as Agent C, a rival employee who’s suspicious of H and starts meddling in our protagonist’s investigation. Then there’s the always-ravishing Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), who elevates the whole shebang with her kooky (and criminally short-lived) portrayal of Riza, an intergalactic arms dealer (with an extra arm) who also happens to be one of H’s former flings — I thought she looked weirdly smokin’ in her strange af attire.
At the end of the day, Men in Black: International doesn’t really have much to offer. While the second installment had its stars’ charisma to help get it by, and the third its time travel plot and 60’s aesthetic, this latest entry just feels totally out of date; it’s also the longest in the franchise, which makes it less zippy than its forerunners. While some might be happy to re-visit the MIB, I doubt Hemsworth and Thompson have the magnetism to swing the door open wide enough to ensure any future adventures. I guess it’s time for the Men in Black to step back into the shadows.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie