Men in Black: International and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by F Gary Gray
As tacky as it may seem, I kind of want to see MORE studios blatantly try to pick at the MCU’s carcass by snatching up its major talent and putting them in new scenarios with similar dynamics. It’s kind of like the cinematic equivalent of an Elseworld’s tale or maybe even one of those bizarre crossover comics where the X-Men are on the Enterprise or Doctor Who has to fight the Cenobites or whatever. Picking up both Chris Hemsworth in full on Thor Swagger mode and Tessa Thompson at the height of her popularity is probably the best thing this film has going for it because it certainly isn’t the name brand recognition. The first Men in Black movie was good but is older than the target audience of this film, the sequel was utter dreck despite having my beloved Johnny Knoxville in a fun supporting role, and I never even bothered with the third movie that this thankfully doesn’t seem to be a direct sequel to. Still, the concept is at least unique enough that you could still salvage it given the right talent which looks to be the case with its cast as well as being directed by F Gary Gray. Can the MIB be brought back from the dead to be the next big cinematic franchise, or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the late nineties and early 2000s over and over again
Molly (Tessa Thompson) has spent the last twenty years looking for the mysterious Men in Black organization which tried to capture an alien in her childhood home but failed to do so and also failed to neuralyse her like they did her parents. It was a pretty serendipitous event as well because Molly is a bit of a loner and cares more about unlocking the mysteries of the universe than having friends or forming genuine human relationships; a trait prided in members of the MIB! Because of this as well as her ability to eventually find them, the current head of the New York branch Agent O (Emma Thompson) gives her a shot with the new moniker Agent M and sends her to London for training where she runs into Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) who is a big shot hero from a few years ago but seems to be in a bit of a slump. He and the head of the London branch High T (Liam Neeson) once stopped an alien invasion with nothing but a couple of weapons and their wits, but when a protection operation H takes M along on goes completely awry, it could spell the end of not just their careers but the Earth itself. They must solve the mystery of who wanted to kill H’s alien buddy Vungus the Ugly (Kayvan Novak) and whether or not there’s some greater conspiracy happening with the MIB that this is just a small part of. Oh yeah, and there’s a comic relief alien (Kumail Nanjiani) that does cute things and spouts sarcasm. Can M and H learn to work together and solve the mystery before MIB or something more dangerous catches up to them? Will the organization that prides itself on being secretive collapse into ruin due to the duplicitous nature of one of its own? Is it just me, or is it becoming increasingly hard to believe that THIS many people and THIS much equipment are STILL a complete mystery to the undiscerning masses; all of whom have smart phones and social media accounts?
I actually liked this movie quite a bit! Sure it’s no masterpiece and it lacks the bite that made the original film so memorable in the first place, but I like the areas where they took the concept and ran with it. The previous movies (at least the first two as I haven’t seen the third) never made the MIB feel like a real organization as much as a fancy backdrop from which a buddy cop film with aliens could take place. A GOOD buddy cop film, at least in regards to the first film, but the concept was begging for a much larger scope and a more fleshed out world. This movie delivers on all of that in a way that I wasn’t really expecting; not just with Thompson and Hemsworth being a great duo to carry the film, but with all the secondary characters that sell us on the idea of this organization and that it’s populated by real people; not just props. Now sure, the plot itself is very predictable and there are scene to scene story decisions that either needed to be reedited or hit the cutting room floor entirely, but as a first step towards rebuilding this franchise, I think they nailed it about as well as they could have! Room for improvement to be sure, but that’s why you do sequels in the first place! Okay, the reason to do sequels is to make more money off of something familiar, but the SECOND reason to do a sequel is to try and expand on a rock solid foundation; one which this movie delivers!
Things start off quite well as we delve into the backstory of our new protagonists; one a somewhat jaded and self-absorbed golden boy and the other a young woman who had to search her entire life just to get this opportunity. It’s a basic, yet well executed contrast that shows us both the wish fulfillment aspect of being part of an organization that you truly want to be a part of and the eventual monotony that seeps in when you do it day in and day out for years. Tommy Lee Jones probably sold the latter better in the original film more than Hemsworth does here who at least compensates with a great deal of physicality and self-deprecating humor, but the real stand out is Tessa Thompson as more or less the new Will Smith but with an actual motivation to be there. That’s something that always felt a bit off in the original film, where Will Smith just kinda stumbles into the organization on what seems to be a lark for Tommy Lee Jones. It’s not a HUGE problem because Will Smith ends up embodying the role of the outsider looking in so well, but with Tessa Thompson there’s an additional drive there that makes it feel like that much more of an accomplishment for her to be here. The two also work together quite well and I’d put their chemistry up there with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith; certainly more than Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in the sequel. Again, we’re not REALLY breaking any new ground here with one being the party loving natural and the other being a book smart newbie, but what works about this movie isn’t necessarily what’s NEW about it as much as what tweaks they’ve made to update the familiar material. I mean it may not be The Last Jedi in terms of making what was old new again, but the attitude is there and keeps this from feeling like a tired retread.
In fact, let’s take a closer look at the world building and what they’ve done to mix things up. As I said, MIB feels like a more believable organization instead of a backdrop for the two leads to stand in front of, but why is that? I guess by counter-intuitively downplaying the strengths of the original film; i.e. its cynical tone mixed with dark humor. The MIB of the first film was one of stone faced and jaded workers who have uncovered the secrets of the universe and frankly seem to have been left wanting. Even the nominal head of the Organization played by Rip Torn has a rather lackadaisical attitude towards the possible annihilation of the human race and given the world that’s set up in the film it doesn’t feel like that big of a loss. I mean the whole thing about the neuralyzer keeping the masses placated, the fact that the truth stares them right in the face on the cover of tabloid newspapers, the fact that there’s ALWAYS a Arquilian Battle Cruiser or a Corillian Death Ray or an intergalactic plague about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet; it creates a world where things don’t really matter and the only thing we have to grab onto are our two leads. It’s a much different vibe throughout this film as the other members of MIB (at least some of them) feel like real people with real goals and agendas and not just extras in sharp suits. The world is not much more fleshed out, but we’re not meant to take think of life on earth as miserable and little. Even the structure within MIB seems to have changed from very cold and efficient to something with more comradery and a sense of pride and duty. The film has paintings of Agents J and K fighting off an alien threat (I’m GUESSING its Edgar the bug, but I couldn’t really tell) as well as a painting of Neeson and Hemsworth when they saved the world, and it kind of hit me that that kind of sentimentality would not have flown in the original film. It’s a change that I’m not sure if people will like or even really notice, but it gave this movie a very distinct feel from what came before and I found it be an interesting change that they can continue to build off of where I felt the first one covered everything it needed to and failed to expand on in the sequel.
The big problem though is that despite there being so much to enjoy as far as the world building and character setups, the plot itself vacillates between perfectly acceptable and kind of janky. Nothing particularly surprising here (ESPECIALLY the really obvious twist which I called immediately) and there are quite a few moments in here that feel like they were edited poorly together or were clearly hotfixes for subplots that got backed into a corner. The most egregious example is something that pertains to Tessa Thompson’s backstory that comes up rather late in the movie that had me rolling my eyes pretty hard, but I don’t think any of it is bad enough to RUIN the movie; it’s just a disappointment that so much effort clearly went into building up the world itself and yet the story they chose to tell here was just not particularly inspired.
The whole thing is pretty corny and on the fluffier side of summer blockbusters, but I was definitely in the mood for something like this and had a great time watching it. Yeah, it has its flaws that really should have been ironed out before they poured out all this money into a rather lackluster plot, but the pieces are there to build a solid franchise. I’d recommend seeing it in theaters because even if it’s not the RICHEST movie going experience out there, it’s still one that I had a lot of fun with. It’s almost scientifically crafted to be a popcorn spectacle with its big name cast, hefty budget, and straightforward if clunky strung together plotting, but compared to how bad this series has been in the past as well as the ways it manages to modernize itself in interesting enough ways, I’m feeling somewhat generous about it and will give it that little extra push of support! That said, they better not get Will Smith to be the next one. As poetic as it would be for the sequel to THIS film to make the same mistakes as the original MIB sequel (i.e. bring back someone popular from an earlier film for no other reason than brand recognition), I’d rather not have ANOTHER movie in this franchise that I want to neuralyze from my memory.
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