The original Men in Black trilogy, particularly the first film in 1997, was rooted in the idea that aliens live among us, hiding in plain sight on every street corner and subway train. It was a novel idea made incredibly charming by the wits of Will Smith, the lovable grumpiness of Tommy Lee Jones, and the ability to fit an entire universe into New York City's underbelly. It's all summed up in the beautiful metaphor that served as Men in Black's McGuffin : a whole galaxy hanging from the collar of a cat. A lot of things made Men in Black work, but keeping such outlandish stories grounded (mostly) in NYC was what truly gave this franchise its identity. Men in Black: International loses sight of that idea from the jump, and suffers tremendously for it.
Men in Black: International is the first installment of the franchise to not feature its two core cast members -- Smith and Jones -- or its original director, Barry Sonnenfeld. However, Sony got some fantastic replacements in Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, and director F. Gary Gray. The film sees a promising new agent in the MiB organization, Agent M (Thompson), sent to the office in London to assist their top asset, Agent H (Hemsworth). The latter is suave and capable, but often chooses to toss responsibility aside, making the ever-eager M such a perfect match for him. Along with a small and hilarious alien named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), the two agents set off on a worldwide journey to uncover a chase down a weapon and uncover a dangerous secret within the walls of MiB.
If you're looking to replace Will Smith in an action comedy, and get viewers to still care about the franchise, one couldn't have picked a more capable leading duo than Hemsworth and Thompson. They're two of the most charismatic stars we have working today, and their work on Thor: Ragnarok showed just how wonderful they are together. On top of that, Sony locked down one of the best blockbusters directors we have in F. Gary Gray. This was a slam dunk of a lineup for Men in Black: International, but somehow none of it really matters. These great individual pieces just don't come together in any cohesive way, largely due to the inefficiencies of the story itself.
Men in Black has always been about putting the extraordinary into the ordinary, showing that even a tabloid stand or Chinese restaurant aren't as they seem. International spends the majority of its time bouncing from exotic locale to even-grander exotic locale, offering the audience no time to appreciate the world around the characters. There is one moment in London early in the film where it feels like a true Men in Black film, as the duo make their way to an alien night club by way of a hidden tunnel beneath a taxi. Exploring London as opposed to New York City worked well in that sequence, bringing back the magic of the original film in a different setting, and it could've been sustained throughout the entire movie. But things change rather quickly after that, and for the worse.
This entire globe-trotting adventure is clunky from the get-go. Each new destination seems to be just another detour from the actual story, feeling more like excuses to show off a new alien or expensive set rather than actual plot devices. Almost nothing the characters do throughout the film feels like it has a purpose, despite their mundane explanations that they do.
Speaking of the characters, another massive problem here revolves around the crafting of these two lead roles, which seems crazy to say considering the incredible talents playing them. M is an eager and intelligent young agent trying to prove herself, while H is an extremely talented operative who's a bit lazy and chooses to hide his faults beneath layers of charm. Sound familiar? These characters are simply two different sides of Will Smith's beloved Agent J. There were so many complexities to the nature of J, as well as his stone-faced partner, K. Men in Black: International lacks any such characters, instead opting for shallow set-ups of a possible love story and twists that aren't really twists at all. It's inherently lazy, and we've come to expect better from this franchise. Even when the plot of the original trilogy had issues, J and K made you care about what they were going through. Men in Black 3 is a perfect example, as the story itself was weak and forgettable, but the bonding of the two agents in that well-executed third act twist remains one of the most memorable moments of the entire series. There's almost nothing to care about with H&M.
I'm not going to say the talents of Thompson and Hemsworth are completely wasted, as they each have moments where their heart and comedic timing shine through the dull characters they've been given. Kumail Nanjiani's Pawny is an absolute scene-stealer, helping to further solidify the fact that this man is one of Hollywood's next truly great comedy stars. And even with a rough script, Gray has moments where he shows off how gifted he is with studio projects. There are multiple fight scenes throughout this movie where he far exceeds Sonnenfeld, creating real, grounded action out of extraterrestrial qualms.
Sadly, none of this is enough to lift Men in Black: International from its own mediocrity. Sony really stuck to the adage "bigger is better," and in the case of the Men in Black franchise, nothing could be further from the truth.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Men in Black: International is set to release in theaters on June 14th.