After three movies, a TV series, and oodles of other entertainments based on the MEN IN BLACK comic books, it was inevitable that the franchise was due for a big screen reboot. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones took their final bows in MIB3 back in 2012, and now some new blood has been infused into the series via the comely forms of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL makes for pleasant enough entertainment, repeating a lot of the tropes that played well in the previous films, not to mention it borrows liberally from the stars’ chemistry established in THOR: RAGNAROK. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL will undoubtedly appeal to family audiences looking for an easy, breezy outing at the summer cineplex, yet this new adventure misses the chance to be edgier and stand out from the pack.
The MIB franchise has always had a user-friendly appeal to it, but this one could have made a lot more hay about its ‘hunting down aliens” storyline in today’s climate. If only it had chosen to savage the immigration paranoia and chaos running rampant in world governments today. To ignore America’s preoccupation with a border wall, not to mention Brexit and the burgeoning nationalism sweeping the globe, misses a golden opportunity for satire.
The perfect example that MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL could have followed was what playwright Paul Rudnick did when he was tasked with writing a sequel to THE ADDAMS FAMILY adaptation back in the early ’90s. The first big-screen version of that property was too cute and cuddly, miles away from the edgy sarcasm Charles Addams in his original panel cartoons for the New Yorker. That’s Rudnick plied his pithy and politically-minded leanings to ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, the sequel stabbing Reagan/Bush era hypocrisy right in the heart. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL could have and should have, pushed the envelope in a similar vein.
Instead of satirizing a world trembling at misbegotten fears of the other,” the film opts for one, big world-traveling chase caper. Similar to previous outings, the plot here focuses on hunting down a ginormous alien enemy while eradicating a lot of smaller ones along the way. Here, the big bad is the Hive, a race out to take over the earth. The film starts with them seemingly vanquished by macho MIB members Hemsworth as Agent H and Liam Neeson as Agent T. After besting them at the Eiffel Tower, the two are promoted, and one of the film’s better jokes is that Neeson’s character is charged with heading the London office where he’s now known as “High T.”
Meanwhile, back in America, a bored telemarketer (Tessa Thompson) who’s been obsessed with aliens since encountering one as a child in Brooklyn, tracks one down vis a vis her employer’s state-of-the-art computers. She’s got a knack for interpreting shifts in weather data and electrical activity in the earth’s atmosphere, and soon enough the sleuth is following two MIB agents to their underground lair to process a Martian. Once there, she talks her way into the program and quickly graduates at the top of her class.
The coolly cynical Agent O (Emma Thompson) admires her gumption and assigns her to London to help Agent H who is just starting to investigate re-emerging Hive activity. She meets H, and they bicker and banter as they go about their duties, arguing about who gets to drive and such.
When Smith and Jones did it in the three previous films, they were like oil and water. Smith’s character played loose, hip, and earnest, while Jones’ vet was tightly wound and cynical. They made for one prickly pair; almost as much a threat to each other as they were to the aliens. Thompson and Hemsworth seem only mildly irritated by each other. He’s lazy, and she’s determined, but their differences don’t seem as many and thus, their interactions lack spark.
Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to keep some sort of sexual chemistry between them, but it’s so mild as to be nonexistent. The banter they do have plays similarly to the bitchy brother and sister vibe from their Thor movie together. You want their words to sear, but they never quite achieve an acidic zing. Hemsworth is a hoot, but his character is written very close to Thor’s egotism. As for Thompson, she’s likable and committed to the shenanigans here, but she doesn’t play her type-A agent as nearly funny enough. Imagine what a nervous, coiled Tracee Ellis Ross could have done with the part, or an intensely quirky Ellie Kemper, for that matter. The film needs more oomph like that.
H and M’s case takes them from the UK club scene to the deserts of Morocco. They gently troll each other, but most of the best lines fall to Kumail Nanjiani voicing an acerbic CGI alien named Pawny. He’s eight inches tall and rides in H and M’s pockets a lot as he throws away his delivery, turning good lines into great ones. The three heroes encounter numerous aliens in disguise – one is a street vendor’s beard! – and there’s a lot of fighting and special effects that make for amusing set-pieces. Still, some of the shenanigans feel very “been there/done that,” especially when Rebecca Ferguson shows up as an ass-kicking arms dealer with three arms. It’s so similar to her MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE character that it plays as simply too on-the-nose.
This venture will likely warrant another, and the filmmakers would be wise to sharpen their knives. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s script is jocular without ever being knee-slapping, and F. Gary Gray’s direction is deft and action-packed without ever riffing on all the actioners he’s helmed before. The two Thompsons should work as an onscreen team too as their chemistry is more palpable. Finally, much more hay needs to be made out of our current global fears, something far from alien to the MIB brand. This is amusing stuff, but it needs to sear to soar.