It took just over twenty years to see how regular, if not downright banal it is to watch black-suited heroes protect the earth from the scum of the universe. To its credit, part of the appeal of the Men in Black franchise has been the way these various members of a top-secret organization manage to handle world-threatening issues with an attitude not too dissimilar from filing their taxes. Sure, the various films provide their sense of wonder thanks to elaborate makeup and CG effects showing all the different aliens populating our planet, but to the agents, it’s just a job. With Men in Black: International, it feels like just a summer movie.
This doesn’t mean the film is particularly bad; there’s just not much to it. The effort is there, with a game cast, and some fantastical ideas to further open up a world that involves aliens and the lengths they and the MIB go to in an effort to keep things hidden. However, regardless of the changeup in lead characters, writers, and director, MIB: International misses the mark on how to properly build its spectacle. With an overreliance on action sequences, here’s a film that seems to forget how much fun it is to watch these agents not feel too impressed with the kind of work they are doing, despite the intergalactic activity that comes knocking on their door.
Understandably, being the fourth film in this series, it makes sense to deliver on some fresh ideas. The disastrous first sequel made the mistake of rehashing what made the first movie work, with some added role reversal stuff. The third film was surprisingly quite strong thanks to its clever time travel plot that not only found a great casting choice in Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones but also delivered on an emotional element to better round out Will Smith’s character. Naturally, MIB: International finally decides to show how things work in other parts of the world. It’s just a shame the story is way too straightforward.
The good guys still dress in black. Remember that? Well, what if that wasn’t the case? That becomes an element of the plot, as probational Agent M (Tessa Thompson) finds herself paired up with senior Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) at the London branch of the MIB. Due to a mysterious alien attack, they believe someone within the MIB could be working as a threat against them. This leads to some globetrotting, as Agents M and H do what they can to meet up with other aliens who may have some clues to what’s going on.
Between the opening prologue and the limited set of important characters, it’s not hard to understand where the plot is going. Not that MIB: International is offset by having a weak core mystery, but it doesn’t help to have a disposable story that merely delivers on being kind of fun in the moment. For all the joy that came out of discovering the world of Men in Black the first time, it also happened to be a good buddy cop movie with some interesting subtext regarding immigration. Perhaps Sony didn’t want to rock the boat, but it seems like a 2019 film could have done something to keep playing into those thematics with ease. I mean, the illegal aliens have all sorts of agendas this time around, but it barely becomes less than murky by the end of the movie.
To the film’s credit, Hemsworth and Thompson are good together. Thor: Ragnarok was already a good test of their strength as a team, but this film, fortunately, doesn’t have them replaying the same type of roles. Thompson’s M is new to the MIB, but smart, curious, and a professional. Hemsworth’s H is tough, funny, and capable, but also roguish, and seemingly inept at times, despite his reputation. Regardless, the film really gets going once these two are teamed up.
Joining the leads are several capable actors who do their best to either join in on the fun or lend the film a bit more authority. Emma Thompson returns as Agent O, with just enough good scenes to make you wonder why she isn’t used more in this film. Liam Neeson serves as the head of MIB’s UK branch, adding nothing you wouldn’t expect. Kumail Nanjiani gets to have a lot of fun as the voice of a tiny alien who teams up with H and M. Rafe Spall plays into being a foil for H as fellow Agent C, basically serving as a guy who seems to be saying all the right things, but is only wrong because the screenplay needs him to look bad when stacked against the heroes. And Rebecca Ferguson pops in for a bit as another alien with a past connection to H and a few arms too many (she’s also an arms dealer – comedy!).
Director F. Gary Gray fills in for Barry Sonnenfeld, the second time he’s done so, after replacing Sonnenfeld on the Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool. While a solid filmmaker as far as getting good performances from his actors and doing enough to keep things moving, there is less of a heightened feel this time around. It’s the sort of thing where I can see not wanting to copy Sonnenfeld’s very distinctive camera style, but Gray injects little to make MIB: International ever rise above being a standard action-comedy. It all brings me back to what the takeaway seems to be.
For all the clever gadgets and alien designs (I was partial to a bearded fellow M and H find in Marrakesh, only to discover the beard is also an alien), there’s not much here to make the film standout. Men in Black was fresh back in 1997. In 2019, between the out-of-this-world superhero films, and similar spectacle like it, it feels like more was needed beyond two leads with solid chemistry. More than that, however, is where to place the emphasis. I don’t think Men in Black succeeds because of car chases, fights, etc. The success comes from the deadpan wit when addressing wild-looking aliens, and treating world-ending dangers like just another Tuesday. In attempting to mix things up with a hipper, younger appeal, the initial spark seems to have been lost in the process.
On the whole, Men in Black: International will satisfy those who want to see Hemsworth and Thompson having fun together, while talking to aliens, and whipping out their neuralyzers. Even with less reliance on practical makeup designs, the alien effects are still neat, and the gags about which celebrities are actually aliens has yet to get old. At the same time, this feels like the kind of film where there was a chance to prove just how malleable this franchise is, even without Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. Instead of getting something that takes advantage of being a globetrotting adventure with a deliberate sense of humor, there’s a film that ends up feeling fairly generic in every way. Due to their secrecy, the agents may not be trying to stand out, but I wish this movie were able to.