Looking back at the first Men in Black film from the late 1990s, it’s wild to think that this became a full-blown franchise. Yes, it was a huge commercial hit and did very well with critics, but even now it feels a little bit too weird to have done so well in the mainstream. That’s the power of peak Will Smith, I guess.
Anyway, after a couple of enjoyable yet middling follow-ups after the turn of the millennium, Sony/Columbia have decided to dust off the black suits, and bring the weird and wonderful world of MIB back to the big screen. This time though, there’s no Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones to protect the world from the scum of the universe; instead it’s everyone’s new favourite actor pals Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson.
Thompson plays M, a bright-eyed new recruit to the Men in Black who is quickly shipped off to London, to investigate some potential internal subterfuge at the UK branch of the galaxy defenders. Hemsworth here plays H, an agent who’s been resting on his laurels since committing a great heroic deed a few years earlier, and may be a little too chummy with certain parts of the alien underworld.
Of course, the Men in Black need to be defending us against something, and the threat this time comes from The Hive: a race of shape-shifting alien conquerors who we’re told by Liam Neeson’s head of MIB London, High T (boomtish), can take the form of anyone. If you haven’t figured out what’s going on here before the end of the second act, you really aren’t trying hard enough.
So once again, Earth is under threat and it’s going to take two chalk-and-cheese agents to save the day from an alien threat. Just like old times, right?
Well, the issue that Men In Black: International is that it feels like it’s trying too much to feel like the golden days of Barry Sonnenfeld’s first film. Characters like Frank the Pug and the wise-cracking worms are so recognisable as parts of the Men In Black universe that it was almost inevitable that they would turn up in this latest instalment. However, the characters’ inclusion in this film feels so tacked on for the sake of fan service that I wish the writers hadn’t bothered.
Other returning elements include Emma Thompson’s Agent O, the chief of New York’s Men In Black precinct from Men In Black 3, and while it’s always a great pleasure to see Emma Thompson doing anything on screen, she was completely wasted in this film. Between her and Liam Neeson, who I can’t look at the same way ever since that interview he did during the Cold Pursuit promotion at the start of the year, I know who I’d rather have seen more of in this film.
There’s not much doing in the bad guy camp either, and for the majority of the film, The Hive are embodied by French dance duo Les Twins who – bless them – aren’t actors. Some nifty visual work aside, they really don’t leave all that much of an impression, which when compared to what Vincent D’Onofrio, Lara Flynn Boyle and Jemaine Clement had brought to the previous three films, is more than a bit of a drop in quality.
Men In Black: International thus hedges its bets on the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson doing enough to win its audience over, and it’s a fair gamble to take. Thompson and Hemsworth have shown themselves to be good friends ever since working together on Thor: Ragnarok and there’s already talk about them potentially coming together again for a remake of The Bodyguard, but here the whole partnership just feels forced. A lot of that comes down to the writing, which isn’t doing any of the film’s characters any favours, except for a spirited effort from Kumail Nanjiani, who gets the funniest lines by far. Sadly he doesn’t join in until the halfway mark, by which point my interest had already vanished into thin air.
The film limps to the finish line with a hint of future instalments planned, though if I were a betting man, I’d not fancy the prospects of a follow-up any time soon. It’s a shame, the series up until now hasn’t been perfect, but the Men In Black films have always been good fun within a rich and fascinating universe. International feels like a Men In Black film by committee, and while I’m sure the film will have its fans, much like the Paul Feig reboot of Ghostbusters, the filmmakers have put maybe a little too much stock in filmgoers’ nostalgia to make a film which is interesting in its own right, meaning it ultimately doesn’t have anything new to add, or anything interesting to say.
Whether the series recovers down the line from Men In Black: International‘s disappointment will be interesting to see, for now though this will surely go down as another sorry victim of 2019’s floundering blockbuster season.
Here’s hoping the slump will end soon.