MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Rush), Tessa Thompson (Creed), Liam Neeson (Taken), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Fallout), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Rafe Spall (The Ritual), Emma Thompson (Love Actually) 

Director: F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton)

Writers: Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Iron Man)

Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes

Release Date: 14th June (US, UK)

The original Men in Black is one of those near-perfect blockbusters that still hasn’t been matched in over two decades, delivering all the spectacle you expect from top-tier Hollywood but having a unique identity and premise that quickly cemented it as a pop culture mainstay. The two sequels, however, did little more than try to recapture the magic of the original, with Men in Black II being a mess of lazy ideas and incompetent plotting, whilst Men in Black 3 was a marked improvement but fairly forgettable. For a franchise with infinite galaxies of possibilities, it felt remarkably shy to try new things, so a fresh perspective was probably the best way to go. Enter Men in Black: International, a spin-off/soft reboot that seeks to majorly switch up the formula and bring the franchise to a new generation. The final result is a fun ride while it lasts and easily the best entry since the original but, though it at least tries to do some new tricks, ultimately it is yet another disposable sequel.

With just one returning cast member and only the slightest wink to the explits of Agents J and K, International finally breaks away from the standard MIB set-up and instead throws our newly-introduced agents into a globetrotting mystery and gives the series a welcome tonal shake-up. It very much takes for granted you already know the rules of the world and jumps right in, allowing it to spend ample time introducing its own twists on the mythology, and in the age of reboots that’s a relieving approach. However, there are still a lot of the bad hallmarks of the prior films here, along with plenty of clichés borrowed from other buddy cop franchises. What mostly works about International is its characters and the interpersonal dynamics between them, but the pacing moves too fast at points for this to be given room to breathe. The film is also structurally a mess, especially the first act (like, why do we start in a flash back to three years ago, then flashback to twenty years ago, and then finally get to modern day?), almost as if the film is in a rush to get to the action. There are a few compelling mysteries within the narrative, but none of them pay off particularly surprisingly and get little time to sink in before the incredibly rushed third act. What International offers in theory is strong, and the plot itself does serve as competent connective tissue for the film’s many set pieces, but everything of substance feels a little undercooked.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson made for a great pair in Thor: Ragnarok, so it only makes sense for Hollywood to find them another vehicle to further explore their playful chemistry. Whilst the actors’ natural comedic chemistry is absolutely still in force here, the roles of Agents H and M simply aren’t as strong as their prior sci-fi characters. Hemsworth is basically playing his character from Ghostbusters again, once again nailing the oblivious doofus persona, but even though his general incompetence is a key factor to the plot it never feels justified enough. Thompson fairs a lot better, giving a similar streetwise edge to Will Smith’s J but with a modern feminine edge, and her backstory and motivation make her an immediately compelling POV character. The relationship between H and M is an immediate breath of fresh air after three instalments of the now-stale J and K dynamic, but though it hints at some greater connection down the line their bonding doesn’t feel anywhere near as tight; they do learn from their experiences together, but their arcs feel far from satisfyingly tied up.

The supporting cast is something of a disappointment too. Liam Neeson does what Liam Neeson does best as MIB London head honcho High T, but the opportunity for him to do something truly different is briefly promising then pulled away. Rebecca Ferguson feels tragically underused as an intergalactic arms dealer, whilst Rafe Spall makes the most of a clichéd role as H’s bitter rival Agent C. As the only returning cast member (not counting brief cameos from supporting alien characters), Emma Thompson’s role as Agent O is brief mainly serves to bookend the film; then again, she probably ends up with more screen time here than she had in Men in Black 3. The film’s real stand-out instead proves to be Kumail Nanjiani as the diminutive sidekick Pawny who, whilst serving little plot relevance, is a welcome comic relief presence who always has something funny to say. However, if the character sticks around for a sequel, I’d hope they don’t overuse him.

As much as the original Men in Black was remember for its humour and characters, the world it built was the real showstopper and much of that imaginative design is what kept the later sequels at least visually fascinating. Unfortunately, the lack of director Barry Sonnenfeld and creature designer Rick Baker is blatantly obvious from a visual perspective. Though F. Gary Gray has a firm grasp on the action, delivering slick set pieces with plenty of laughs interjected in between the spectacle, his eye simply lacks the quirkiness that gave MIB its unique identity. The aliens this time around are almost entirely CGI creations, losing the tangibility of the practical effects that made the world feel that much more real. On top of that, the designs often feel too cartoony and even lazy; for instance, all that makes Rebecca Ferguson’s character an alien is an extra arm and a wacky hairdo. Danny Elfman returns to do the score with the assistance of Chris Bacon, bringing back the recognisable themes along with new eerie tunes that fit right in line with the classics, but where’s the tie-in rap song for this movie? I mean, not even Pitbull this time? C’mon, Tessa, couldn’t you have roped in your buddy Janelle Monae to throw a track together or something?

Men in Black: International is that exact kind of blockbuster that’s fun while you’re watching it, but quickly shows its flaws once you actually think about it. There’s a lot that does work here, mainly thanks to the efforts of its capable lead duo and their boatload of natural chemistry, but in the hands of any other team this could have easily been a disaster. Nevertheless, this is certainly the right direction for the Men in Black franchise to go in, but it still hasn’t quite learned to let go of its laurels yet. Next time around, I want to see a return to the dark weirdness of the first film blown up on a larger scale, taking the series in even bolder new directions and creating something wholly unlike its predecessors. The likelihood of that actually happening is slim to none given the track record, but one can hope, right?

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

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Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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