Men in Black: InternationalReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/13/19 15:23:39
When the original “Men in Black” film came out in 1997, the combination of a cheerfully goofball screenplay inspired by the lighter side of deep conspiracy theories, elaborate special effects and the strikingly effective teaming of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones transformed that film into that rarest of beast—a wildly expensive blockbuster that still managed to maintain noticeable levels of wit, charm and originality. Just how rare of a beast it was would become evident with the arrivals of “Men in Black II” (2002) and “Men in Black 3” (2012), two astonishingly clunky followups that preferred to simply copy the stuff that worked the first time around instead of trying to find a new twist or angle to the material and whose basic entertainment value was somewhat diminished by the fact that it was apparent that neither of its stars seemed particularly excited with the notion of returning to the fold. “Men in Black: International” is an attempt to restart the lucrative franchise with new people on both sides of the camera attempting to revive the spirit of the original one. Although the end result may be slightly better than such current dreadful cinematic brand extensions as “Dark Phoenix” and “Shaft,” the level of improvement is negligible at best and it still never comes close to justifying its existence.For those who don’t recall, the Men in Black are a quasi-government agency charged with monitoring and regulating all alien activity on Earth—keeping tabs on who is coming and going, putting out fires of potentially apocalyptic proportions utilizing fantastic technology and, if their activities should happen to be witnessed by members of the general public, zapping witnesses with machines that erase those memories and replace them with new ones so that they are convinced that what they saw was just some swamp gas and not a giant slorth. This is usually a foolproof system but a 80s-era prologue shows that this is not always the case. In it, a young girl named Molly finds a cuddly alien hiding in her bedroom and helps it to escape but while her parents get their memories neualized, she manages to avoid getting zapped herself. This inspires a lifelong quest to get to the bottom of what she saw and when we next see her, the now-adult Molly (Tessa Thompson) is as obsessed as ever with finding out the truth about extraterrestrial life. While investigating a possible alien landing on her own, she not only spots the creature but sees the Men in Black that she also recalls from that long-ago encounter. She follows the agents and winds up infiltrating their secret base of operations. After finally being caught, she is about to get her memories wiped until she makes an impassioned plea to the head of the organization, Agent O (Emma Thompson), to let her join up instead.
For her first probationary assignment, Molly, now rechristened M, is sent to London to work in the MiB offices there, eventually partnering up with H (Chris Hemsworth), a one-time star in the agency who helped fend off a potentially cataclysmic invasion of Paris a few years earlier but who has basically become a joke coasting by on his charm, his past reputation and the indulgent protection of former partner and current branch leader High T (Liam Neeson). While on assignment to watch over a high-ranking and hard-partying alien visitor one night, there is an ambush that leaves the alien dead and Molly in possession of an object of presumably unimaginable power. It is quickly determined that there is a mole in the London branch and, thanks in no small part to the machinations of a jealous co-worker (Rafe Spall), suspicion quickly falls on H. Before long, he and M, along with Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), a cute little creature who has determined that M is a queen and has pledged eternal fealty, find themselves on the run as they try to evade capture from their colleagues while at the same time uncovering the various mysteries and, perhaps inevitably, saving the universe from destruction.
I have to confess that even though I did not care for either of the previous “MiB” sequels at all, I found myself looking forward to the prospect of “Men in Black: International” with something vaguely resembling enthusiasm. For starters, the cast—which also includes Rebecca Ferguson as an alien arms dealer who turns up in the late innings—is filled with talented and highly charismatic actors, the kind who could help sell lesser material just on the strength of their personalities. It also struck me that a storyline dealing in part with an agency charged with overseeing alien immigration might have some things of interest to say in regards to current events in the real world. Finally, if nothing else, it struck me that in the 22 years since the release of the original film, screenwriters Matt Holloway & Art Marcum might have been able to put together enough fresh jokes and takes on the material to make a new one worthwhile.
Without belaboring the point (a position that the film, clocking in at nearly two full hours, clearly does not share), “Men in Black: International” managed to quickly disabuse me of all of those cockeyed idealistic notions. The screenplay is arguably the least inspired of the entire series—it takes forever for the story proper to begin and then delves into such confusion that even though it is ridiculously easy to figure out who the mole is, I am still not entirely sure as to what the villains were trying to accomplish in the first place. Although the film hopes to maintain the lighthearted and jokey tone established by the original, director F. Gary Gray just has no feel for the rhythms of comedy and as a result, moments that seem like they should be inspiring big laughs just wind up getting buried under an avalanche of wildly elaborate but utterly anonymous visual effects, none of which come close to evoking the silly-but-effective creatures and situations of the original film. The best thing about the movie is the byplay between Thompson and Hemsworth, who do play nicely off of each other when the film gives them a chance to do so. Alas, those moments are few and far between and even at their best, they never quite manage to equal the truly inspired back-and-forth that they generated in their scenes together in “Thor: Ragnarok.Yes, “Men in Black: International” is better than the previous “MiB” sequels, though that is primarily due to the fact that it doesn’t feature a pair of co-stars who would obviously rather be anywhere else. While this one doesn’t actually show open contempt for ticket buyers, it doesn’t give them much of anything else either. Lots of stuff happens but none of it means anything and at a certain point, not even the efforts of Thompson and Hemsworth can help to rescue it from terminal mediocrity. (The film is so absolutely forgettable that it practically serves as its own neuralizer.) It won’t be the worst of this summer’s sequels—it isn’t even the worst one opening this week—but in terms of sheer and unadulterated pointlessness, it will hopefully prove to be hard to beat.
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