Few film franchises have promised so much yet delivered so little on the same level as the Men in Black series. The 1997 original was a critical and commercial success that blended science-fiction, action, and comedy better than anything else. In spite of that, it never quite translated into an equally terrific film series. Even with Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and director Barry Sonnenfeld returning for two sequels, they struggled to live up to the original. With this latest installment, Men in Black: International, it seems things might be changing for the better.
If nothing else, the film genuinely wants to reinvigorate the franchise with fresh faces. The big appeal of the previous movies is the unlikely pairing of Smith and Jones, but this film’s major hook is the dynamic duo of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, which debuted in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. In addition, this is the first Men in Black film to be helmed by someone other than Sonnenfeld: F. Gary Gray. Whereas Sonnenfeld’s filmmaking style can be summarized as heightened and quirky – often conveyed with the use of wide-angle lenses – Gray’s style is more rough and grounded, best evidenced in movies like Friday and Straight Outta Compton.
It is clear based on the people on both sides of the camera that International succeeds at being new for this series. Unfortunately, it is nowhere near as good at feeling new, which turns out to be more important to the final product. In fact, that last sentence might be too generous. Men in Black: International is not only another example of wasted potential in the series, it is also the most generic and unenjoyable movie of the bunch. Even Men in Black II, for all of its disappointments, comes closer to capturing a sense of fun novelty than this.
The movie struggles to breathe new life in many places, though the casting of Hemsworth and Thompson is the most notable. Since Smith and Jones were an untested duo in the first Men in Black, its script spends a lot of time constructing strong personalities that are further improved thanks to Sonnenfeld’s direction. By contrast, Gray seems to believe that placing its leads in the same scene is enough to make sparks fly. As expected, this does not come to fruition. While the two leads are by no means dreadful, they flounder under the absence of compelling characters.
This becomes most apparent in the case of the film’s protagonist, Molly/Agent M (Thompson). In essence, she represents the outsider much like Agent J in the original. The key difference here is that she knew about the Men in Black organization since she was a child. In this respect, this sets her up as a knowledgeable individual who is eager to be in the organization. That said, the plot still requires her to be the dumb rookie in awe of her surroundings. This is in spite of the fact she already knows that aliens exist.
Matt Holloway & Art Marcum’s script does a disservice to its characters, but it is perhaps more underwhelming on the level of world-building. One element that was prominent in the earlier films is how concisely it shows the universe’s massive scale. This is yet another area in which this movie disappoints. Despite what the title promises, it is shocking how few locations are included in the film’s sluggish 115-minute runtime. Admittedly, most of the scenes take place outside of the series’ hometown of New York. However, it rarely takes advantage of the settings outside of the inherent spectacle of famous landmarks and deserts.
Most annoying of all, however, are Holloway & Marcum’s attempts at comedy. The closest it comes to effective comic relief is Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), who often makes snide remarks at Agent H (Hemsworth). Still, he is a fun addition to the movie due to Nanjiani’s deadpan voice work more than the trite dialogue. Elsewhere, the script weaves in cliched culture humor and an insufferably cute moment with Agent H holding a hammer that echoes Hemsworth’s previous work. Not even the series tradition of having celebrity cameos as secret aliens works this time around. Simply put, “tired” would be the best word to describe the gags.
If there is an upside, it is that the filmmakers are talented enough to make the movie feel slick. Much like Gray’s previous film, The Fate of the Furious, he is more intent on replicating the visual aesthetic of what came before than providing his own unique stamp. Thankfully, this happens to work in his favor more often than not. In the case of International, he quite admirably emulates Sonnenfeld’s boxy framing and wide-angle shots. The movie also carries the high-contrast color palette that defined the previous movies. To its credit, this gives it a nice poppy vibe that some modern blockbusters weirdly avoid.
On the subject of competent production values, at least it has a variety of fun creature designs. Pawny’s race of aliens that function as chess pieces, a feisty hairy alien that is also a man’s beard, and monsters that resemble plush dolls only scratch the surface on what the movie has in store. All these designs are delightfully goofy while still having enough personality to make them feel relatable. It certainly helps that the franchise’s increasing reliance on CGI has not been detrimental whatsoever for their overall looks.
All told, Men in Black: International does nothing to capitalize on why a pre-existing property worked in the first place. Despite its claims to reinvigorate the series, it does a feeble impression of what made the original so great. This is not to say that the movie is truly awful since the filmmaking is at least functional. Instead, it is the definition of joyless mediocrity, the last thing anyone would want out of a mindless summer blockbuster. I did not expect this to be the second-best Sony reboot of the 2010s to feature Chris Hemsworth, but here we are. – Mark Tan
Men in Black: International is now available in theaters.
The film stars Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, and Liam Neeson.