James C. Clay // Film Critic
MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL
In 1997 the original MEN IN BLACK struck a tone that was an adequately weird piece of popcorn cinema that took a detective buddy cop comedy to new levels by adding aliens, quirky gadgets, and Will Smith who at the time was the biggest star in Hollywood. Director Barry Sonnenfeld gave that film a distinctive tone that made black suits and sunglasses an iconic look even if some of the imagery is a bit cheesy by today’s standards. With two sequels that received varying levels of acclaim, the franchise has laid dormant for the better part of a decade.
There were chances at a possible arrival including a crossover between 21 JUMP STREET and MEN IN BLACK that would have had Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum battling aliens while tripping acid. Films like this need to embrace their inner strange rather than fight against their most significant strengths by playing it safe. As sure as the sun will rise MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL is a film that refuses to take any risks with its’ story, tone, or humor. Instead director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) alters the approach with a film void of charisma despite its’ two irresistible stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth.
The film opens in 1996 as a bit of an origin story for a young girl named Molly (Thompson), who the titular “Men in Black” forget to memory wipe after she encounters a small alien in her bedroom one night. The young woman uses her skills as a long, long alien truther to track down the MIB in hopes of becoming an agent. After being apprehended by the agency, she does a minimal amount of convincing as she persuades “Agent O” (Emma Thompson), head of the New York City branch to allow her to join the force as a probationary agent.
Once in London “Agent M” meets the roguish “Agent H” (Hemsworth), who is the most decorated “man in black.” After a long exposition dump, and forgettable set of plot beats they embark on a globe-trotting mission that a stenciled version of a Hollywood blockbuster.
There are only so many chances to get the opportunity to make a film with so much possibility to expand and take the audience in newfound directions. In this case, the writers Art Marcum and Mat Halloway (TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT) showcase why the studio hired them as writers of a Transformers film with a script that’s a scattershot attempt at a sprawling journey. While in today’s diverse landscape, it makes logical sense as to why this film took the general approach to show the full scope of the modern world where we coexist with extraterrestrials. The issue with this is the world building lacks any focus that made the original film potent.
The Men In Black films had a sense of place, New York City played a part in the fabric of the alien life there were so many characters and odd situations to encounter that pushed the audiences boundary, but stayed within their comfort zone. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL almost feels allergic to finding an identity.
The material here does such a disservice to Hemsworth and Thompson’s dynamic that THOR: RAGNAROK proved successful. Hemsworth plays a prep school douchebag that “M” labels as dangerously inept and reckless. Thompson gets some character development here and there, but given the opportunity to let their characters grow, through no fault of their own, these well-established stars seem lost in their own movie. Epic films like this need to make the characters drive the narrative, not the other way around. Audiences are smarter than studios may realize. We want to be able to connect to what we see on-screen. We can’t empathize for a big blue light in the sky, but we sure can shed a tear at a young girl playing with a baby alien.
Much of pleasure of the MEN IN BLACK films came from uncovering the life forms that are hiding among us, from a shit talking pug dog, to a squid baby being birthed and who could ever forget Vincent D’onofrio’s turn as the cockroach lodged in human skin from the original film. In most of the creature, the action comes from anthropomorphized versions of blue aliens with hair, scales, or tentacles, which is rather pedestrian.
Oddly enough in the last third of the film when H & M (lol) encounter intergalactic arms dealer Riza (Rebecca Ferguson) does the film gain focus and in turn add some blockbuster intrigue to a film that was lost on Mars without a ticket home. Lurking around the film are Liam Neeson, as the head of MIB London, Kumail Nanjiani, who voices the alien equivalent of an emoji and the aforementioned Emma Thompson, who showed up for what is essentially a cameo.
Gray has been a fine journeyman director with several successful studio films including LAW ABIDING CITIZEN and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON under his belt. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL wasn’t the right fit for an otherwise respectable filmmaker. This film was a welcome return for the franchise with a lot of the ingredients to make an exciting film but lacked much of the creativity that made this franchise a household name. Unfortunately, MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL is one summer film you may want to erase from your memory.