Synopsis – The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.
My Take – Can you believe that it has been twenty two years since the Barry Sonnenfeld directed sci fi action comedy, Men in Black, loosely based on the comic book series created by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers, hit theaters?
At the time of its release, the film was one of its kind, mixing aliens with comedy, two prominent genres of that time. But what really propelled the franchise to complete an entire trilogy (2002’s Men in Black II and 2012’s Men in Black 3) and an animated TV series, without its fans suffering from fatigue is the cleverly conceived tandem of the stoic Tommy Lee Jones and the bombastic Will Smith, whose rapport added further absurdity and color to its already absurd and colorful premise.
Smith’s casual humor and Jones’ deadpan expressions gave it an orthodox yet very identifiable touch. Yes, it was clichéd but relatable, and most importantly, the sharp one-liners worked.
Now six years later after the last film, Columbia and Sony Pictures have returned to the franchise, albeit with a fresh cast and crew, with Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, who shared such a delicious comic chemistry in Marvel‘s Thor: Ragnarok, taking on the black suits and Ray-Bans this time around, with director F. Gary Gray, straight out of the success of The Fate of the Furious, taking the helm.
Surprisingly, the film squanders absolutely everything it had going for it. Despite the presence of bizarrely inept scripts, this is a franchise that has mostly worked on smartly done literal jokes and the charm of its lead actors, while this spinoff too uses similar ploys, here, somehow the combination is just lazily done and way beyond salvation.
While Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson put in earnest efforts, they are criminally misused by a script which offers them almost nothing to work with. The film is just constantly throwing things in your face, but none of them really stick. Given that Art Marcum and Matt Holloway’s last writing assignment was Transformers: The Last Knight, it ought not to be surprising that this is a tragically poor attempt to revive a franchise which died years ago.
The story follows Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson), a prodigiously brilliant 20 something woman, who has been wasting away her life at a dead-end call center job in New York City, mainly as she awaits her one true calling that is to find the Men in Black. About 20 years ago, as a little girl in Brooklyn thought to be asleep upstairs, Molly witnessed her family being neutralized by the Men in Black after a confusing alien encounter with a little extraterrestrial who she helps escape.
After chasing the mysterious organization for so many years, with a help of a well-prepared series of tricks, Molly succeeds in finding herself inside the MIB headquarters in front of Agent O (Emma Thompson), where after test filled encounter, Molly officially becomes the probationary Agent M, and transferred to London HQ.
Quickly send it to the field to act as a company to Vungus the Ugly (Kayvan Novak), a member of an alien royal family, along with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a former heroic agent, who had once saved the world from a parasitic alien group called The Hive, alongside the Head of London branch, Agent High T (Liam Neeson), but has since fallen from grace. Now H sleeps with alien enemies and parties when he should be working.
While the mission was to said to be a simple ‘keeping tabs’ kind of routine, it goes quickly sideways when they are attacked by The Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois aka Les Twins), a shape-shifting alien duo, who are seeking a dangerous artifact with the power to level the galaxy, throwing H and M into a zippy romp, which includes a face-off with Riza Stavros (Rebecca Ferguson), an alien intergalactic arms dealer, all the while figuring out whether someone at MIB is working as a double agent for the Hive.
Here, the film boasts of a lot of intergalactic razzle-dazzle, but honestly just relies on the nostalgia of the first film. A fact clearly evident in a plot, which is effectively a re-hashing of the original only with a twist! The ‘twist’, however, is so laboriously projected that you know what it’s going to be after the very first scene. And if you couldn’t figure it out then, you’ll have a dozen other opportunities to do so, courtesy of the most heavy-handed foreshadowing ever to ‘grace’ the silver screen. For a story-line of a mole that has infiltrated the organization the film is sorely lacking mystery and surprises.
The franchise was built around the idea that civilizations exist on other worlds, and not only are they in regular contact with our own, there is common traffic and trade that must be managed and kept under wraps from society at large.
There’s a lot that could be unpacked within that, and they could have made a wonderful parable about the ongoing worldwide refugee crisis. But here the array of aliens are lacking in novelty, with only Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), the pint-sized and hilariously servile guard, dishing out truly hilarious gags.
Gone are the aliens whose intended similarities to the diverse culture that comprise America bear more than a subtle jab at the state of immigration. Now, they’re all eye candy, existing only to further exoticism. Alternatively, there’s emotional drama that could be wrung from the often tossed-aside point that in order to join the MIB you must give up all contact with the outside, including your very name.
But instead, we got a simple us vs. them narrative, fueled by CGI action and a paper-thin plot that dissolves if you look at it too closely. The film lacks the drama and punch, both inside and outside the covert bureau operating for the welfare of all living beings including aliens. It’s international just for the sake of being international and is stuck in a time zone where alien films used to be mostly about salivating bizarre creatures.
Also lost in the razzle-dazzle, is an opportunity to tell a story about what it takes to be an MIB agent. In the first film, Jones’s Agent K wanted to be able to live a MIB-free life again and asked Smith’s K to neuralyze his memories of the agency. There are hints of that sentiment here in O’s preliminary tests of M: O stresses that being an MIB agent isn’t all fun and games, and that it’s something you can’t come back from.
While the film returns to that theme a few times, reminding us that M has no friends or family, that she hasn’t ever been in love, they are only few and in between.
The film’s action, despite being fairly relentless, as each scene introduces either a new computer-generated alien or opportunity for Hemsworth to flex his muscles — is just as pedestrian. The villains, matter-shifting aliens played by French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, allow for some cool effects work, but they get lost in the CGI soup that characterizes the final battles of so many recent superhero films.
The eye-catching stop-offs in Paris, Marrakech and Ischia give the film a scale missing in earlier installments, but for all its globe-trotting, desert-blasting and hoverbike-riding, there’s little here that justifies prolonging a series that should probably have been neuralyzed a couple of films ago.
Sadly, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson’s blend of flirtatious nagging and droll jib and jabber are not enough to make this revival truly memorable. But there is only so much either can do with their braggart/rookie characters, one-note roles that make him appear obnoxious and her seem gormless.
However, Kumail Nanjiani voicing an entirely CGI alien, is at his hilarious best here, playing a heroic beta who manages to hold his own against the two main stars. Also, Rafe Spall, who plays the bureaucratic Agent C, fares a little better in a supporting role.
While Rebecca Ferguson, Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson are relegated to ineffective small roles. Laurent and Larry Bourgeois too never seem like a threat. On the whole, ‘Men in Black: International’ is a tiresome, unnecessary and patently lazy attempt to revive a dead franchise.
Directed – F. Gary Gray
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 114 minutes