A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2019

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL j

2019, PG-13, 115 mins.

 

Chris Hemsworth as Agent H  /  Tessa Thompson as Agent M  /  Liam Neeson as Agent High T  /  Rebecca Ferguson as Riza  /  Emma Thompson as Agent O  /  Rafe Spall as Agent C  /  Kumail Nanjiani as Pawny (voice)

Directed by F. Gary Gray  /  Written by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum

SCREENED IN
3D

The somewhat more inclusive minded titled MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL is a pretty bland and creatively lackluster sequel that, last I checked, not too many people were clamoring for, especially without the series' lead actors or creative personnel returning.  

It's the fourth film in the science fiction comedy franchise that began with great promise way, way back with the 1997 original that gave way to a truly terrible sequel and later a much better third outing (which I thought was a pretty valiant and mostly successful attempt to give die hard fans a solid trilogy closer).  MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL does boast some strong production values, striking VFX and agreeable leads in Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, but this latest installment comes off as a mostly unnecessary MIB sequel/soft reboot that sorely misses Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' odd couple chemistry and, well, a genuine reason to exist (beyond studio profit motive). 

This is all a shame, because I really dig the MIB cinematic universe (which was born from the original comic book series of the same name).  The glorious late 90s series starter introduced us to the titular top secret government organization that had agents named after letters of the alphabet all decked out like Blues Brothers.  They acted as an intermediary police force between humanity and alien life forms living on the planet, which opened up many avenues for all out comic absurdity and mankind versus extra-terrestrial action.  By the time the 17-year-old series hit the third entry it was becoming clear that story staleness was starting to creep in, and finding novel and inventive ways to pluck Jones and Smith back into the fold was growing all the more difficult.  MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL desperately tries to change things up with new main characters and new country settings, hoping to elicit a sense of joyous series rebirth.  That's a commendable approach, but MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL stumbles when it comes to basic plotting and new world building, not to mention that it's simply not funny or fresh enough to spin this well worn material into different beats.  More often than not, MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL feels like a sequel lazily coasting by on pure autopilot, lethargically rehashing plot beats from previous iterations and never finding its own footing in the process; it's just sluggishly grinding storytelling gears...and not much else. 

 

 

Maybe one of the largest issues with this sequel is that it forgets the appeal of the previous MIB films in being specifically and predominantly set in New York, which gave those films a unique satirical flavor despite its out-there and fantastical premise.  There's nothing inherently wrong with expanding this cinematic universe's scope to new nations and cities - like London, Marrakesh, Naples, and Paris - but the script by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway displays no ingenuity or wit in exploring the limitless comic possibilities  of making this fourth film a globe and cultural trotting affair.  Famous locations and landmarks figure in heavily in the plot here, like the Eiffel Tower in one larges respect, but the ham fisted scripting never fully explores its exotic.  Why call this film INTERNATIONAL when it neither celebrates or takes advantage of its global sense of scale? 

And, when it boils right down to it, MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL is just a stale retread of Agent K's origin story from the first film, albeit with a different African American actor at the helm.  THOR: RAGNAROK's wonderful Thompson stars as Molly, a young woman that begins the film obsessing over the MIB, mostly because she witnessed her parents being neuralized by them into amnesia during their close encounter with an alien decades ago (she was accidentally spared).  In the twenty ensuing years she has hunted the MIB and has tries to locate their well hidden base, which she does find, leaving the MIB's security measures to keep their secret HQ and secret open for laughable scrutiny.   

Molly manages to impress the NYC HQ's head honcho in O (Emma Thompson), who decides to hire her on a provisional basis and gives her the new Agent moniker of "M".  Predictably, M is positively elated at her new career change and takes to it with a childlike, wide eyed enthusiasm.  O sends the MIB newbie to London, where she hooks up with English agent H (Thompson's THOR co-star in Chris Hemsworth), who's overseen, in turn, by his London branch boss in "High T" (Liam Neeson).  Agents H and M have their hands full in attempting to navigate through the London underworld to stop an upcoming invasion by the nefarious alien race known as The Hive.  Complicating their mission is M's greenhorn status in the field, not to mention the emergence of a mole with MIB that could threaten everything.  There's also an ultimate doomsday weapon that must be located as well, which is now in the hands of a former alien fling of H's (Rebecca Ferguson), who's insistent on keeping all four of her hands on it. 

Even though MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL is a sequel in the established series universe, it does, as mentioned, come off as a lame duck reboot/remake of the first MIB adventure, right down to M working through training and advancement with the organization and having to deal with a new partner that's her polar opposite.  M is sort or a stickler for details and the rules, whereas the fun loving, hedonistic, and authority defying H does things by the seat of his pants.  This sequel doesn't suffer, per se, because of the very presence of Hemsworth and Thompson, who display the same sort of carefree and effortless platonic chemistry that was displayed in THOR: RAGNAROK.  The tandem's physical attractiveness and collective performance good will here essentially make MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL watchable.  Their dynamic here is decent, but it inevitably pales in comparison to the AWOL Jones and Smith, both of which played off of each other flawlessly even in uninspired MIB outings.  Part of the sublime pleasure of these films was in witnessing Smith's increasingly frazzled and incredulous reactions to the madness around him, all while the perpetually poker faced Jones remained stoically reserved.  Hemsworth and Thompson are good on screen together, but their improvisational schtick throughout MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL feels more forced than organic and natural. 

Director Barry Sonnefeld's presence is also mournfully lacking for round four, who has been rather oddly replaced by STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON's and THE FATE AND THE FURIOUS' F. Gary Gray, a good director that seems a bit out of his element here.  Gone is the idiosyncratic weirdness of Sonnenfeld's aesthetic, which leaves Gray in the problematic position of trying to impart his own stylistic sensibilities to a well established visual world.  And, it should be emphasized, this new film looks good and the digital effects used for many of the aliens are top notch (although, the design of many of them lack bizarre sophistication).  Gray also harnesses the action beats with some competence, but he's unavoidably not helped by a tiresomely penned screenplay cemented on a mystery that's never as compelling as it thinks it is.  When final, would-be shocking revelations occur it's more eye rolling than thrillingly surprising. 

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL's biggest sin is that it's just not very funny.  Despite having the capable pairing of Hemsworth and Thompson riffling off of one another, they're simply not given good material to work with in order to tickle our funny bones (one visual gag involving Hemsworth's H picking up a small hammer in a fight, referencing his most famous movie super hero role, is this film's best attempt at inducing giggles).  And you know you're in trouble when an action figure sized CGI alien - voiced well by Kumail Nanjiani - is given better zingers than his human co-stars.  Overall, MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL comes off like a bad idea and a failure of initial conception and execution, not to mention being a waste of talent and resources.  It doesn't propel the series - that had reasonable levels of closure with the last film - forward with any amount of breezy and imaginative momentum.  It's basically a petty and cynical minded cash grabbing sequel that should of known better.  Maybe the studio heads behind this debacle should be neuralized so that they never remember the dull and disposable sequel they greenlighted...and never attempt another. 

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