by Philip Price
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson & Kumail Nanjiani
Runtime: 1 hour & 54 minutes
From the outset of director F. Gary Gray's (“Straight Outta Compton”) ‘Men in Black’ re-boot one can gauge there is a certain indifference to the project and if not necessarily an indifference, but a lack of creative care towards the film. This can be gleaned from nothing more than the opening credits which only goes so far as to ape the font of the original without bothering to try and emulate the objective. The opening credit sequences of the Barry Sonnenfeld trilogy would each attempt to emphasize perspective in this world in which the Men in Black existed, whether it be seeing said world through the eyes of a flying "bug" or by actually playing with perspective so as to upend expectations and re-enforce that not everything is as it seems and furthermore, not everything is as we might assume. I recall these opening credit sequences because not only did they play into the story the rest of the movie would be telling, but they played into the themes of the whole series: that this, our world-no matter how big and alone it might seem to us at times, is actually only a small part of a much grander scheme. The majority of the first three MIB films take place in and around New York City and yet they do their best to emphasize time and time again how vast the universe is outside of themselves even if what is happening within the events of the film might have epic repercussions on this, our third rock from the sun. With ‘MIB: International,’ despite going bigger in terms of operating on a global scale the film can't help but to feel much smaller-especially in comparison to that original film-both in terms of scale as well as its ideas. This is to say, the seemingly carefully plotted opening credits of the previous films are no more and have instead been replaced with text over the movie just as it would have played were the opening credits not present at all. This may feel rather finicky, but as it is noted that Gray and his team took little time to consider the legacy of the franchise and the little details that made the original so special-and more importantly, work as well as it did-it only makes it more clear as to why there isn't necessarily any care taken to carry said legacy forward in any meaningful way. Rather, ‘MIB: International’ ends up feeling like exactly what it is: a rushed and uninspired riff on a proven formula that cares more about the how it's been received in the past as opposed to the why it was received that way in the first place.
“Men in Black: International” starts out promising enough as it doesn’t immediately follow the cop procedural beats that all of its predecessors tend to hold themselves to. Instead, we are introduced to Molly (Tessa Thompson) as a young girl who is already fascinated with the mysteries of the universe who then comes to find out aliens really do exist and retains this knowledge after the Men in Black visiting her home and neuralysing her parents believe her to be asleep upstairs. Turns out, the extraterrestrial's made their visit to Molly’s room specifically as Molly makes friends with a cute, but unbearably CGI creation that you know is coming back around and will pay off in some convenient way later in the movie. It is from this inciting incident that Molly develops a lifelong obsession with this secret government agency and finding out how she herself can become a part of that agency. Meanwhile, in the prologue that forgoes the creative title sequence we are introduced to senior agents High T (Liam Neeson) and H (Chris Hemsworth) who are part of the MIB London branch and saved the world a few years back from something called "the Hive" with "only their wits and their Series-7 De-Atomizers” to boot. In the time that has passed since this historic mission High T has risen through the ranks to become the head of the MIB London in what would be equal to the returning Emma Thompson’s O or Rip Torn’s Zed from the original while H has become more of a mess and something of a has-been who prefers to work alone. That is, of course, until Molly-now known as Agent M-shows up in London on a probationary period as an agent per O and sullies the weathered H out of complacency. Joining H on his miserable excuse of an assignment to babysit an alien called "Vungus the Ugly" the film then begins to devolve into the more traditional beats of that aforementioned procedural when Vungus and Agents H and M are attacked by mysterious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois AKA Les Twins) who can manifest as pure energy and whose presence indicates a mole within the walls of the MIB as only the agents present in the room when this task was assigned-which included High T, H, M and Agent C (a forgettable Rafe Spall)-knew the location of Vungus prior to the assignment. Who is the mole? Can H and M figure out what these mysterious twins (and completely bland bad guys sans for some pretty gruesome death scenes) are after and why they want it so bad? You know how it goes and given these elements kick in around the 45 minute mark leaving an extended hour and 15 minutes of convoluted fluff to wade through you'll likely want to check out just as quick.
That isn't to say these motions the movie begins to go through couldn't be involving, but the first half hour or so of the film that sets up how this organization has moved into the future and how hard M has had to work to infiltrate the MIB is very clearly the more fascinating stuff. Why screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (“Transformers: The Last Knight,”) as well as producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald decide to rush through these beats rather than remain with M and give her character the necessary amount of time that might allow audiences to really feel as if she’s earned her place among the ranks of the Men in Black doesn't make sense. While I understand wanting to stray away from comparisons to Will Smith’s character in the original trilogy, ‘International’ would have benefited from at least giving Molly a training montage rather than utilizing said montage to show us how she tracked down the MIB headquarters in the first place. The film breezes through these beats that would otherwise allow us to invest in this character, our true protagonist, to the extent that by the time she actually becomes part of the more routine plot that dominates the second half of the movie we might have cared more about these routine events (as far as routine events go pertaining to the world of MIB). This is ultimately a long way of saying that if Sony really cared about extending the life of this IP then it would have taken more care to find the balance between new and old of fresh and stale in order to weed out the references that didn’t have a place in this new world while finding a new enough spin to maintain our interest. Fresh. Fresh is the key word here and I don't mean that in any kind of ironic fashion. And as it is, the "international" aspect is a good enough hook and the idea of someone seeking out the MIB instead of the other way around to produce a different dynamic between partners is a solid way to spice things up, but neither of these promising additions to the time-tested formula are followed through on to the point they make a difference in the overall impact this new product leaves. That's what ‘MIB: International’ is after all, a product of a movie if there ever was one; existing solely for purposes of capitalization on a known and familiar brand instead of coming to fruition due to any genuine inspiration or storytelling that justified the continuation of this franchise. Rather, ‘International’ just is.
Here's the deal with ‘MIB: International’ though, it just doesn't care enough to either excel or even fail at enough of a miserable rate to warrant any interest at all. It's so middle of the road, in other words, that I'm sincerely surprised I've come up with these many words to say about it at all. And I'll stand by this no matter how much I might come to enjoy the film or forgive its mediocrity after the repeat viewings from the countless random stops on TBS three years from now that this movie will undoubtedly garner from me. That said, and with all that has been said so far to be given serious consideration – ‘International’ also has just enough juice in its tank to make it more enjoyable than not. Yes, everything about it screams of untapped potential and the possibility of a much funnier film with a more engaging plot and more fully developed characters that it's almost infuriating, but seeing as the potential is so present it's not surprising that what we're left with, that what we do have isn't actively terrible, but in fact can be fairly pleasant despite the fact it's wholly forgettable. For starters, seeing this world we were first introduced to in 1997 expand past those central characters and into a modern world-as with everything in this movie-could have been explored more, but offers the promise of something intriguing. Then there is the partial if not full utilization of practical effects to bring the admittedly goofy, but still fun alien creatures to life. Inspired by the designs of legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, it's comforting to see Gray and his team continue in this tradition and not completely convert to fully CG creations so as to preserve the aesthetic of this world as well as assist in the tone. It is in speaking to this point though, that one should mention the main character who is in fact fully CGI and who it was assumed might be the downfall of the film yet actually turns out to be its saving grace. Yes, Hemsworth and Thompson have a chemistry, but it isn't operating at the same level it was in “Thor: Ragnarok” and what saves their awkward non-romantic/romantic entanglement here is the fact it is supplanted by their interactions with a miniature alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) who is the last survivor of a small group of aliens who were attacked by those evil twin dudes. Nanjiani has a knack for being able to create a sense of credibility and genuine fun where there isn't actually much of either and he demonstrates this ability to more or less "smooth things over" time and time again here. In a sense, one could say Pawny neuralysis the audience, allowing them to forget the obligatory nature of everything else in this movie and only remember its light, well-intentioned nature and almost making us glad we weren't completely reprieved of this series after 2012.