As a franchise, Men in Black feels like it has justified its continued existence within the sphere of pop culture. Launching hot off the heels of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith was a star, and Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K was the gruff and established voice needed to balance Smith’s out-of-his element Agent J. The sequel followed up, gave us a bigger world and more memorable characters, while Men in Black 3 eventually gave us the Josh Brolin performance as Young K that we never knew we needed. A solid trilogy, but one so iconic surely couldn’t be left to the studio warehouse? Enter, Men in Black: International, the overseas expansion of the well-dressed G-man saga.
Men in Black: International
Director: F. Gary Gray
Release Date: June 14, 2019
With K and J off on the sidelines, International is led by Molly (Tessa Thompson), a confident, career-driven young woman… who believes in aliens. After an alien encounter as a child, Molly avoided the trademark MiB neuralizer, leaving her hungry for the world of galactic defense. Her perseverance pays off, landing her an audience with Agent O (Emma Thompson), who sees a spark in Molly, and one montage later Molly is now Agent M.
To its credit, International doesn’t waste time drafting Molly; there’s no extended learning curve she picks up on, instead dropping her into a case in London, where she’s paired with the fast-and-loose Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) on a mission defending intergalactic royalty. “Jababien” royalty, as it were; a name that hilarious deserves mention. H is a legend for more than his looks, having fended off the cosmic horror of the Hive some years ago, alongside London director Agent High T (Liam Neeson). Needless to say, things go south, with a world-destroying weapon and conspiracy within the ranks of the Men in Black fueling a globe-trotting chase to save the world. Once again.
At one point it’s mentioned by a character how peculiar it is for someone to save the world consecutively, mere years apart, and it’s almost as if the writers knew the jig was up. International’s big world-ending story never feels quite worth pursuing. The chief antagonists appearing in the form of cosmic shapeshifters who we assume to be a part of the Hive, but lack any semblance of personality or charisma, as Vincent D’Onofrio’s skin-stealing roach in the original, or Johnny Knoxville’s weird two-headed goon in Men in Black II had. It’s a film reliant upon its McGuffin, the aforementioned “world-destroying weapon.” When your villain for most of the film is an inanimate object, alarms should be sounding.
Not to worry though, we have beautiful people to lead our bug hunt! What could go wrong? Tessa Thompson plays Agent M as confident and smart while still being out of her element, though her counterpart in Agent H registers as decidedly less interesting. There’s a recurrent motif in the film (played for laughs though there were none to be had) where women are smitten by H’s killer good looks. Alien, human, it doesn’t matter! Women just want to grab hold of those arms and never let go. Yet for a movie pushing a strong woman as its lead, making multiple jabs at its own masculine namesake, Men in Black: International resorts to cheap “he’s so dreamy” moments far too often. Frankly, Hemsworth’s incredulous reactions and stream-of-conscious banter just didn’t charm me the way it was supposed to.
Further adding little are International‘s supporting players. Kumail Nanjiani lends his sardonic drawl to “Pawny,” a pint-sized alien whose queen is murdered, leaving him to tag along for the ride. Rafe Spall’s Agent C is the foil to Hemsworth’s H; a by-the-book analytic at odds with H’s off-the-cuff style. The characters of International feel as if they’re filling out roles, rather than existing in their own oddball sphere, further enabling the redundant “save the world” story.
Men in Black films, in my mind, have always succeeded off of the strength of their leads. Action spectacles were never really the selling point when you had K and J riffing off of each other so well, and International misses that sorely. We get occasional special-effects set pieces, but even those hardly register as astounding when they come across as bumps along the road. Not to mention audiences are spoiled on good, grand-scale visual dazzlement by better films. With M and H unable to really carry us on the trip, this chase is starting to feel more like a crawl.
Like so many other franchise fourths, Men in Black: International just gives the impression of fatigue, though it isn’t solely due to its brand continuation. There’s a lack of creativity in International, with its vague save-the-world premise and one-note characters. Earlier I mentioned Agent H’s playboy manner and smooth demeanor, and I was hoping maybe that was meant to be the initial impression to throw the audience for a curveball. Yet by the film’s end it felt as if H really was an oafish buffoon bumbling through these high-stakes encounters; no sense of growth or earning his reputation.
Beyond the lack of character, the tiresome story telegraphs far too early that there are twists abound, sledgehammering the audience to be alert. Who’s the rat inside the Men in Black? It’s got to be someone! There’s little room for payoff during International‘s hurried finale, itself an underwhelming action scene.
Back when Men in Black 3 was ready to hit theaters, if you had asked me if the franchise needed a revival ten years after its last entry I would have given a shaky response. Yet a purposeful story and continued mileage out of its stars’ chemistry gave us a cap on what was now a great trilogy of action-comedies, replete with the occasional goofy alien to keep the eyes engaged. I had hopes that International would once again surprise me, and kick off a new chapter in the world of oversized aliens and dapper G-men. Instead, we got the B-team. Or maybe we should just jump to the D-team.