The summer of 1997 marked the start of a series that would quickly rise to popularity and stick around so effortlessly that it can still be casually referenced in conversation today without causing confusion, Men In Black. The original film starred Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as the iconic duo in a government agency that deals with alien diplomatics and otherworldly threats on a daily basis. These characters worked as foils for each other so well that, despite how opinions changed on the overall series as it progressed, most would agree that Agents Jay and Kay remained entertaining together throughout. Men In Black II (2002) and Men In Black 3 (2012) never quite reached the same success as their predecessor, but were able to keep the name of the franchise alive and well so much that it can still claim to be a household name over 20 years later. A trilogy with that kind of staying power is bound to inspire a few extra sequels and spin-offs (there even used to be an animated Men In Black show for the Warner Brother’s kids program!). The latest hopeful reviver of the franchise is Men In Black: International, this time starring Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in leading roles very similar to the ones occupied by Smith and Jones within the trilogy. But can this charismatic squad hold the sequel together, or is this film destined to become lost to time and space?
The initial setup of International is that Tessa Thompson’s character Molly witnessed a run-in with the Men In Black as a child and managed to escape without having her memory of an alien encounter wiped. She grows up determined to search out the government agents that made her parents forget the extraterrestrial experience and join their organization to know the full truth. In all honestly, the setup is very attention-grabbing, as it is an interesting and plausible premise that a little girl could see an alien and be overlooked when it comes to government damage control in favor of ensuring that her parents forget. The film follows Molly as she soon finds MIB HQ and waltzes in only to be immediately caught, but leading Agent O (Emma Thompson) returns in this film as the first person to see agent potential in Molly due to her intellect and determination and offer her a job. Molly readily accepts and dons the persona of Agent M, and is soon paired up with Hemsworth’s Agent H, a cocky and reckless charmer who became semi-famous for stopping an alien hive in Paris alongside his mentor, Agent T (Liam Neeson). Together, their new mission for M to prove herself on her probationary period is to protect a partying alien diplomat named Vungus from two aggressive shapeshifting attackers, but they ultimately cannot keep Vungus safe and have to take on the responsibility of protecting his hidden star-powered super-weapon from those who threaten to steal it and use it for nefarious purposes. Vungus also warns them not to trust anyone within Men In Black for fear of a mole operating within the headquarters, and M is told that H has changed recently and inexplicably to a much more callous person. The duo also comes across one of H’s (murderous) old flames Riza (Rebecca Ferguson) and a little alien sidekick called Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) in their quest to keep the weapon out of the wrong hands and discover the identity of the traitor within Men In Black.
That brings us to the core component of Men In Black movies, the chemistry between the two leads. Hemsworth and Thompson already had a leg up since they had previously partnered together for Thor Ragnarok, proving that they naturally work off of each other very well. When H backs off of being so irritatingly dismissive like he is in the beginning, he and M are able to have some nice moments with each other, both comedic and quiet. While many people will still prefer Smith and Jones in the spotlight as the polar-opposite teammates, Thompson and Hemsworth very obviously mesh well and none of their interactions seem forced or disconnected at all. Nanjiani also does a good job at providing his voice for a comic relief character that doesn’t become unbearably annoying, which is always a plus for a movie. Along with some interesting but not spectacular visual effects and hit-or-miss designs, at the very least it makes the movie an entertaining watch.
The story on the other hand is a bit more of a mess to tackle. Certain plot threads seem to appear and then go nowhere only to be acknowledged at the end in a quick and unsatisfying way. It feels at times almost as if someone writing the script was getting ready to submit it but then suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, I laid down the groundwork for this concept forever ago and then forgot about it, guess I’d better squeeze a resolution in there somewhere!” This results in pacing that feels like a car that keeps quickly alternating between pressing the gas pedal and the brake, making it clumsy and whiplash-inducing at its worst. Another majorly misused element was Rebecca Ferguson’s villain, who is built up to be this menacing baddie throughout the film only to show up for a few brief, unimpressive minutes. Her design is also uninspired, as she is a homicidal alien crime lord and H’s ex-lover, it would’ve been cool to see them go all-out with an over-the-top awesomely designed villain, which seems to be what Ferguson is going for with her almost cartoony performance. A good fix for this would’ve been to have her character get more screen time and be designed as a creatively zany mix between practical and computer effects, so that her looks could be as versatile and wacky as her acting. There was also (minor spoilers) a surprise extra villain at the very end, but it seemed so last-minute and confusing that the surprise didn’t seem to affect the audience all that much and felt more like a footnote than a major plot point.
When push comes to shove, Men In Black: International is a movie that people were quick to point out the negatives in, and while it does deserve some criticism, it deserves recognition for its positives as well. It does skew a bit towards a younger audience, but that means that kids will probably love this movie and can get a taste of the MIB franchise, especially if the original trilogy is still a bit too scary for them. If you’re a Men In Black purist, then this film may not be for you, or maybe it is and you might enjoy seeing it and talking about why you did or didn’t like it with your friends if you’re a “glass half-full” kind of person. I would recommend seeing it at least once, even if you’d prefer to wait until it comes out on video or streaming services. In the end, the creators left the proverbial door open for a sequel, so who knows where we may go from here? Hopefully, when future Men In Black films are put into development, the creative team can carefully consider which previous elements were well-received and which needed to be reworked and then put this knowledge into practice. This will allow them to come back sharper than ever just like fans know that they can and maybe even with a new great sequel in tow.
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