Directed By: F. Gary Gray
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson
After witnessing a pair of mysterious, black suit-wearing men wipe the memories of her parents following their encounter with an alien creature when she was a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) has made it her life's goal to track down the organization the two agents worked for. Armed with the confirmation that we're not alone in the universe, her relentless quest to prove the agency's existence finally pays off two decades later when she discovers the location of their New York City headquarters, run by Agent O (Emma Thompson), who decides to recruit the young woman to the Men in Black on a probationary basis based on her tenacity.
Molly – rebranded as Agent M – is immediately shipped off to the London branch of the agency, which is overseen by High T (Liam Neeson), where she quickly wrangles her way into tagging along with the branch's rockstar agent, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), on an assignment to protect an alien from a larger, dangerous entity known as the Hive, a collective that can assimilate and assume the identities of whoever it gets its hands on. When things inevitably fall apart, Agents M and H find themselves on a globe-trotting adventure as they work to uncover the mystery around two dangerous alien twins, a devastatingly powerful superweapon they're in pursuit of, and the possibility of a mole behind everything within the very agency they work for.
Let me start off by saying that I love the original Men in Black. I really, really do. It's a fantastic sci-fi story peppered with comedy, but presented in a grimy, gross package that benefits from playing the whole thing straight. It's a film that's aged extremely well. In contrast, Men in Black II spun all that around, often feeling like a straight comedy peppered with sci-fi elements, a decision that actively works against it even if the chemistry between its two leads, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, remains its true saving grace. Then there's Men in Black 3, which arrived in 2012, a decade after the second film, and had no right being as good as it was; imperfect, sure, but thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly affecting in its final act, and a pretty solid sendoff for Smith and Jones which managed to balance the sci-fi and comedy better than II even if it didn't fully live up to the original film.
So here we are seven years on, the arrival of Men in Black: International marking the series' return to the big screen without its original leads, the film instead banking on the chemistry that Hemsworth and Thompson had in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok to make up for Smith and Jones sitting this one out. If you were expecting a straight up sequel to the original films, though, lower your expectations a bit. A painting of Agents J and K depicting the finale of the first film serves as a nod to their existence, the worm guys and Frank the pug appear – despite what the marketing would have you believe – collectively for about thirty seconds, and Agent O, the only human character to resurface from the trilogy, features in only three scenes.
For the most part, this is essentially a blank slate, half legacy sequel, half reboot, much in the same way that 2015's Jurassic World operated. But like that film, there's a bit of a disconnect here; by not making a clean break and opting to bank on audience nostalgia for the original films, Men in Black: International opens the door for more direct comparison than it would have had it chosen to just have a completely fresh start. Because it wants to live in the same world as the original trilogy, the fact that it's missing the spark that gave those films such character, particularly the first entry, becomes all the more glaring, as though it merely exists because Sony wanted to capitalize on Hemsworth and Thompson's chemistry and Men in Black just happened to be a viable, dormant property that they could inject it into. Two birds, one stone.
But simply putting the two together isn't enough. Just look at the original film: For Jones' Agent K, the arrival of the bug was just another day on the job. When a deadline is set for the destruction of Earth, it's no different than a deadline akin to having a work project done before a meeting with one's boss, and the Men in Black power through it because that's the job. And that's something Smith's wise-cracking Agent J has to learn along the way, as his assignment with K is his training day so that K can retire and put it all behind him. It's the exploration of the dynamic between the wide-eyed recruit full of piss and vinegar and the hardened, exhausted veteran that really makes that movie work because it's simply so relatable and grounded; to the Men in Black, who live in a universe of fantastic things, everything is rather mundane.
International, on the other hand, forgets to give its own two leads that same sense of purpose, which is frustrating simply because the seeds that the film could've let blossom into something unique and great are there, just ignored or glossed over. It touches upon the fact that M has been dismissed as crazy for her entire life for her beliefs and that she's smart enough to be considered for positions within the FBI, but she also has to bluff her way into tagging along with H by saying she knows all about a specific alien language and culture she really has no clue about. Rather than running with that idea, one where this character who knows both everything about the world she was a part of and nothing about the world she wants to be a part of, International instead just has M be great at all she does. For all his jokes, it really felt as though J was being trained, and was called out on being a fool and making mistakes, like firing the Noisy Cricket in a highly public place; M, on the other hand, is treated as though everyone could learn from her simply because she tracked down the organization and demanded to be a part of it.
And then there's H, the London agency's hotshot, who – like M – is painted too broadly, the character saved more by Hemsworth's undeniable comedy chops than any sort of foundational writing. Pairing up a rookie and an agent in their prime is a smart idea that contrasts the rookie/aged veteran dynamic of the original film, particularly if the idea is to have the rookie grow from the hotshot's mistakes and the hotshot learn to be humble from the rookie's successes, but that intent doesn't come across well here. H is almost always treated as a bumbling idiot, and though it's mentioned several times that he's changed for the worse over the years to justify that, it never feels like he's going through a real change.
And that's unfortunate, too, because at H's core, there's also a seed that could've carried some real weight had it been nurtured that's revealed as part of the movie's big, last act twist. The twist itself is practically telegraphed in the film's opening scene in such a shockingly obvious way, and that's discounting the fact you can probably figure it out from the trailers, but there's a revelation surrounding H that truly could've provided the backbone for a better mystery plot and really given these characters something to actively unravel in the shadows, unsure of who to trust because of the invasive act committed against H. Instead, the plot plays out exactly as you'd expect it to with no subversive wrinkles in between Point A and Point B.
It's not helped by the fact that there's no clear villain throughout the film to root against, either. There are the alien twins, portrayed by Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, whose powers are admittedly pretty cool but whose characters have zero depth, a four-armed arms dealer named Riza (Rebecca Ferguson) with ties to H, and potential mole suspects, like the cloyingly sanctimonious Agent C (Rafe Spall), but the real big bad doesn't come to the fore until the very end, long after any investment can be made in them as an antagonist. Vincent D'Onofrio practically stole the show as Edgar/the bug in the original film, and even Jemaine Clement's Boris the Animal stood out in the third film thanks to his interesting performance. (The scene in which Boris attempts to laugh will haunt me in a good way forever.)
It can certainly be argued that not every film like this needs a major villain to always be present, but the absence of one here – at least one that's memorable and so full of zest like D'Onofrio brought with him back in 1997 – only contributes to the sensation that International isn't really carving out an identity for itself. It follows Men in Black II in skewing more towards comedy than overt sci-fi, especially with the presence of Kumail Nanjiani's Pawny, a tiny, loyal alien soldier who has a few fun moments but whose heavy presence feels designed to give small children something to latch on to, contributing to a mish-mash of tones the film itself can never quite settle on.
And though it uses its globe-trotting mission to blow up the scope of the series a bit more, that decision has the added side effect that alien life no longer feels contained to corners of the world that the Men in Black can control and patrol, as though humans exist on an alien planet now rather than the other way around. Keeping the action confined to New York City helped Men in Black stay intimate despite its otherwise big, world-ending stakes, the city a character in its own right, where the agents had to worry about citizens on street corners witnessing something they shouldn't have.
In International, New York City seems to exist in the film solely to bring in Agent O and tie to the first films before M is shipped off to London anyway. There's no sense of cultures clashing – of a New Yorker coming into a foreign branch where things may be done differently than we're used to from the first three films, for instance – or that the cities M and H travel to, like London, Paris, or Marrakesh, are teeming with life and character all their own. The unique inner workings of different branches across the globe that could've helped differentiate International from its predecessors are rarely touched upon, wasting opportunity built into the premise as a result.
In many ways, that idea of wasted potential is what defines the film. While it's got tons of problems, it's still not as bad as Men in Black II, though nowhere near as enjoyable as 3 or as great as the original, also partly due to the fact that director F. Gary Gray lacks the same quirky, palpable connection to the material that Barry Sonnenfeld had the first three times around that at least made those films stylistically feel part of a cohesive whole. I was never outwardly bored during the film, but I was never fully engaged, either, as each time it came close to exploring something interesting, whether on a character level, a story level, a conceptual level, or otherwise, it shied away instead in order to play it as safe as possible for both its story and its characters. That latter part is, perhaps, the most unfortunate, as the cast has proven in the past that they could've really spun gold given better material to work with.
But it's also harmless – and pointless – enough to be inconsequential, the cinematic equivalent of a bag of mixed candies. Some things you'll like, others you won't, and you may even enjoy rooting around inside to see what else there is to find, but once you reach the bottom of the bag and realize there's nothing left, you'll be ready to move on to the next thing. Hopefully – and I mean this – this isn't the end of the franchise, because the very premise of this whole series has a vast universe of opportunity that all the sequels have stumbled in properly mining to varying degrees. The pieces are there. Someone just needs to come along with a desire to shake it all up and really go nuts with where these films can go; it's just disappointing that after a seven-year gap and all it had going for it, International doesn't bring anything truly worthwhile to the table.
Pick a Month: