Men in Black: International

It probably bears repeating that the original Men in Black was actually extremely good. I feel like this is one of those films we forget to revisit because it’s something everybody saw and probably owned on DVD. The popular film launched a hit song and a spin-off TV cartoon and starred actors who were the two biggest box office draws of the moment before they were in it. But it also didn’t overstay its welcome. It was a small, weird, oddball scifi-comedy that was more about ideas and characters than pure spectacle but just happened to have a Hollywood budget for its special effects.

It feels as though that’s a big reason why the two sequels were mostly bad. They recognized that the first film had such a specific alchemy that they were afraid to do anything other than just play the same notes again. So they did so relentlessly to diminishing returns. Yes, Men in Black 3 is better than Men in Black II, but that has more to do with Michael Stuhlbarg and Josh Brolin than the overall feature.

In that context, Men in Black: International easily holds the crown as the second best film in the series by virtue of consistently aiming to do new and different things with the material and expanding on the potential offered by the premise. That’s what all the sequels should have been doing instead of contriving reasons to retread the J and K training dynamic from the original. While you can’t exactly call Men in  Black: International good, it’s at least not bad. It’s inoffensive, mildly entertaining, and has some interesting ideas good chemistry between the leads. It’s pleasant, distracting and unnecessary filler, all but declaring out loud that it only exists to test the waters for the general viability of the MIB brand and the box office muscle of Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth outside their Marvel Cinematic Universe identities. But at least it doesn’t lack for charm.

I can’t necessarily recommend this film, but I’m disinclined to actively discourage it’s viewing.

Thompson plays an overachieving brainiac UFO true believer who’s spent her life turning herself into the perfect prospective Men in Black agent after encountering the agency (and an alien) as a child but avoiding a neuralyzer mind wipe by being just that clever. Her character is practically a blinking neon sign daring internet sadboys to start making dumbass Mary Sue accusations since that really hurt sales for Captain Marvel. She manages to discover, infiltrate, and pitch herself to the agency and ultimately finds herself not only drafted as Agent M but dispatched to the MIB London branch to help boss man High T (Liam Neeson) and Hemsworth’s legendary Bond-esque veteran Agent H deal with the potential return of a sinister race of shapeshifting galactic conquerors called The Hive.

Once there, she quickly discovers that the situation is more complicated and dangerous than she’d been led to believe. Hive assassins are already hunting on Earth and despite his heroic reputation Agent H turns out to be reckless, boorish, lazy, and distracted. M concludes that the London office itself has been infiltrated at some level by a Hive mole. When things go badly south, M and H have to go on the run from both the villains and their own colleagues and attempt to solve the mystery and save the world by moving through H’s extensive connections in the alien criminal underworld.

This is a solid premise marred by so-so execution. It’s definitely starting from the right place. It removes the “Everything is fine. Eventually the rest of the MIB will fix it” safety net that was a fun repeating gag in the first Men in Black but an anchor on the other films and sends the characters bouncing around Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East for a bigger variety of human and alien atmospheres. It also upends the main duo dynamic to be totally different not just from J and K but from other buddy cop-style teams. It’s really just lacking in the follow through.

 

Part of what was so unique and refreshing about the original Men in Black was that it felt so quick witted, mischievous, and playful in an era when big budget movies had been increasingly mechanical and self important. The filmmakers put a lot of hard work into making the movie feel like it wasn’t really a lot of work at all. By contrast, this one too often does feel like someone is making things up as they go and not really too concerned with the film’s structure or how things play out in the end. Instead of feeling playful, the film mostly feels lazy.

Most of the problems are with the script. The production looks fine, F. Gary Gray turns in solid action-comedy direction, and the cast wrings what they can from the material. Hemsworth and Thompson have an easygoing buddy chemistry. But there’s a nagging sense that there should be just a bit more going on here.

Without spoiling anything, there’s a running mystery B-plot about the seeming disconnect between Agent H’s loutish actual behavior and his stalwart reputation that’s a bit too easy to figure out in the context of this franchise. It also seems to be building to an idea that maybe there isn’t a disconnect and that the film might be saying something in a deconstructive way about the way this type of hero character is held up as aspirational. That ties in well with the perception versus reality theme of the whole series, but the film never quite delivers the full payoff and the overall thematic thrust of things winds up muddled and discarded for a visually impressive but not terribly original monster battle finale.

I can’t necessarily recommend this film, but I’m disinclined to actively discourage it’s viewing. It’s weightless, but it’s also basically harmless and it’s nice to see good actors pick up a decent paycheck from a feature that was probably at least decently catered.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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