For a movie that literally no one wanted, MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL is surprisingly… well, no, actually, there’s nothing surprising about it. I wish I had better news, in fact. The latest (and hopefully last) addition to the Men In Black franchise is about as slack-jawed as they come, with the inept screenwriters splayed out in the cabin of their autopilot script—polishing off the orange twists on the rim of their mimosas—on course to collecting a breezy six-figure paycheck. Director F. Gary Gray isn’t much better, assessing the terrain in disorienting close up, almost audibly begging his talented assembly of actors to save the film from crushing mediocrity. Unfortunately, there’s only so much an actor can do—especially when forced to share the frame with nondescript, flaccidly-designed CG blobs.
INTERNATIONAL follows the same conceit of the previous Men In Black outings: a shadowy organization, whose members all dress in slim-fit suits, works to stop hell-bent aliens from destroying the Earth. The first film, which was a box office triumph, paired Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to screen perfection, crafting a precise buddy-cop effort which also served as homage to the 1950s’ B-movie in its visual language of Unidentified Flying Objects and tabloid paranoia. With INTERNATIONAL, director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, FRIDAY) assumes responsibility for guiding a film—whose concept expired around the early aughts—to inspired comic heights.
Get your Liam Neeson kicks in now folks, before he’s booted out of show business for good
Gray stakes his bets on leads Tessa Thompson’s Agent M and Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H, both of whom are very capable, funny actors, if only the script were their equal. Scribes Matt Holloway and Art Marcum are the damn near opposite of funny, chasing punchlines where none are to be found, and beating horses which have been decomposing for about 20 years (Donald Glover is an alien! Cutting stuff, guys). They’re checking all the boxes here: millennial slang, standard-issue corporate wokeness, and there’s even a gag about selfie sticks, where the joke appears to be nothing more than the fact that someone is using a selfie stick.
The movie teases a compelling personality in M, its opening reel implying that she may be a bit of an obsessive nutcase. Such antics are welcome and would be a nice subversion of the hyper-masculine, trigger-happy characterizations of the previous Men In Black. Of course, INTERNATIONAL quickly abandons this route and pitches M as generally charismatic, sociable, and otherwise disposed to this sort of violent tomfoolery. Even her acquired knowledge of alien species proves to be largely useless. Hemsworth is just doing his Thor here, dopey and arrogant, and, while always agreeable, it isn’t enough to carry a 114-minute feature (it feels twice that).
Along the arduous journey, M and H acquire a miniature companion whom they nickname Pawnie (voice of Kumail Nanjiani). Pawnie is a gross creation, a clumsily animated gremlin of sorts; you’ll find many of the other alien creatures are similarly repellant, not necessarily intentionally, but because their design is wholly uninventive. Nanjiani, apparently forced to improvise at gunpoint, crumbles under pressure, with one desperate riff about Kanye West reading as particularly cringeworthy. How this alien—who, by the film’s own admission, lives sequestered from popular culture—is familiar with Kanye West remains a mystery. Rest assured, audiences who’ve never seen a picture show before will guess who the traitor is almost as soon as the character makes an appearance. Nanjiani, though, has the only lines in the movie which most approximate jokes and, despite subpar improvisation efforts, makes for an amusing-enough presence.
He–! Nah. Too easy
Gray’s film immerses itself in supernatural weaponry, indulging in bouts of sci-fi ultraviolence, and it’s evident that the Men In Black has largely kept pace with the modern militarization of police forces. The first MEN IN BLACK relied on firearms sparingly, instead largely leaning on its leading duo’s wits to save the Earth from annihilation. Guns were a last resort in that film, whereas in this outing they’re omnipresent from essentially the opening frames. As Liam Neeson’s “High T” of MIB states so unequivocally: “nothing in the universe is unkillable with the proper voltage.” It’s a little uncomfortable watching a picture so aroused by the prospect of blowing away illegal aliens (a pun knowingly employed in the first film, to be sure. Here? I’m not sure they’re even aware).
The biggest failings of these movies is, sadly, one of their central conceits: the Men In Black are to be totally anonymous, invisible beings with no prospects of relationships or meaningful interaction with civilians. This makes it a little difficult to invest much emotion into the proceedings—for the most part, we’re not watching people, per se, but rapid-quipping automatons, and the best moments of INTERNATIONAL come when M and H share moments of genuine connection, even exchanging names in one (throwaway) moment. It’s a shame that those instances are few and far between. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL could’ve been so much more! It could’ve been something special, something refreshing in a summer brimming with lethargic cash-grabs and uninspired iterations of existing IP. It could’ve been, dare I say, fun!… Agh, who am I kidding…