“Recognizable as only déjà vu, and dismissed just as quickly,” pretty much summarizes the newest installment in the interminable Men in Black franchise. Continuing the trend of reviving known properties past their expiration date, the ubiquitously black suit clad agents return to save the galaxy once again. Finding comfort in the familiar rather than creating a bold new vision, this time, Thor co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson and director F. Gary Gray join the fray in the still contrived Men in Black: International.
Opening in Paris 2016, Agent H (Hemsworth) and High T (Liam Neeson) scale the Eiffel Tower to defeat “The Hive:” an ill-defined world destroying species of alien. The two, armed with nothing but their wits, establish an unsettling trend in the film: forced humor mistaken for romp.
Gray’s International then flashbacks to 20 years earlier in Brooklyn. A young Molly sleeps in bed with a copy of A Brief History in Time. Here, her parents come face-to-face with a violet pigmey alien: Tarantian. MIB appears on the scene to neuralyze them, but Molly avoids the effects and remembers the incident to adulthood. She pends years tracking down the secret organization in hopes of joining them and learning about the universe. Molly eventually breaks into MIB, and an impressed Agent O (Emma Thompson) sends her to London to train under a probationary period.
In Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s script, Hemsworth’s H pretty much assumes the role of Thor. Careening from party-to-party, H desperately needs humbling before his partying and carousing dooms his career and his title of heir-apparent to High T. Thompson’s Molly, now Agent M, pretty much mirrors Valkyrie (minus the fall-down drunkenness). Acting as a foil to H, she cuts down his vague ineptness, arrogance, and recklessness, and exposes his flaws. The two, when out of the perilous reach of tentpole humor, make a wonderful and engaging pair.
Later, M and H become embroiled and accused in the suspected infiltration of a mole in MIB, while they protect a powerful blue star canon from the return of the Hive. They then trace the globe through well shot and editing chase scenes from London to Marrekesh, to the Empty Quarter, and Paris. Along the way, they run into Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani): a tiny green alien soldier who swears undying fealty to Agent M.
While Thompson, Hemworth, and Nanjiani provide some laughs with their ricocheted barbs, with Nanjiani stealing the show, too often the film diverts from its thin story to make an allusion to past Men in Blacks, whether they’re aliens with talking beards or an entire train transforming into a supersonic transport. But mostly, the quips involving Agent C (Rafe Spall) — who displays an ongoing feud with H — are all painfully awkward, slowing the chemistry between Thompson and Hemsworth to a crawl.
Though film barely makes any mention of Men in Black 2 or 3, the film discovers firmer footing when forgetting the past and questioning the sacrifice MIB requires. “Love and relationships distract you,” claims M. The secret organization only recruits those without families and attachments, and M has consciously put herself in said categories. But Holloway and Marcum’s script leaves the negative effects of such beliefs undiscovered.
Instead, they introduce Riza (Rebecca Ferguson, who’s incredible in this tiny role): the Merchant of Death and former lover of H — to demonstrate the drawbacks of illogical passion. The opposing philosophies: love and dispassion, an intriguing loophole in the MIB ethos — have never been accurately explored in this cinematic universe. To do so would significantly change the organization, and Gray’s film peddles in mirthlessly embracing more of the same just done with flashier effects: queue the hit-or-miss designs of the CG aliens in lieu of inspired practical effects.
Frustratingly, Holloway and Marcum’s script scores cheap points by alluding to a reorientation of MIB with regards to women, but never progresses past mere talk. O and M quipping about the gendered title of the organization, Pawny referring to M as his queen, or M taking the time to deliver an empowering one-liner doesn’t suffice to much because there are no actionable results. Does MIB evolve? Is H no longer a James Bond playboy (he might party less)? “We’ve talked it over, but they don’t seem to want to change” essentially summarizes the script. International tries to have its cake and eat it too, throwing idle spatter into the works without leaving the universe’s well-worn formula and callbacks.
While Gray’s Men in Black: International plays with the boldness required for a blockbuster, the film arrives woefully short due to tentpole demands. Nothing demonstrates such constraints more than the film’s ending, which confusingly features an open ended scene meant to bridge to another installment. Such contrived moves decidedly leave a cheap taste in one’s mouth. Men in Black: International, in an astoundingly bad showing of where tentpole cinema is now, forgets the central tenant of MIB: courage.