'Men in Black: International' Struggles to Find Its Place in the Universe
In the midst of 2014's headline-generating hack of Sony Pictures, a curious piece of news emerged about the future of the Men in Black franchise. Following the release of the time-traveling sequel Men in Black 3 in 2012, the company was looking for a way to reinvent the long-running series, which kicked off with the (still quite good!) Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones starring original in 1997. In leaked emails, it was revealed that executives at Sony were in the early stages of conceiving a mash-up of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum's satirical Jump Street movies with the larger Men in Black fictional universe. At one point, a properly synergistic title was even announced: MiB 23.
It sounded like a terrible idea, the type money-chasing corporate vision-boarding that rarely leads to inspired creative works, and soon the concept was unceremoniously scrapped. By 2016, Jonah Hill was telling reporters who asked about the status of the project that it was "kinda impossible" and he didn't think it would ever get made. "The Jump Street films were so fun to make and the whole joke of them was they were making fun of remakes and sequels and reboots and then now it’s become a giant sequel, reboot," he explained. "It’s almost become what we were making fun of and it’s hard to maintain that joke when it’s so high stakes."
While sitting through the paint-by-numbers reboot Men in Black: International, which introduces new suit-wearing alien-tracking agents played by Thor: Ragnarok co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, I kept thinking about the abandoned spin-off idea and how it might have played out. It's not that 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller's meta humor, with its blow-it-all-up impulse and self-referential style, would have been an ideal fit with the drier sensibility of the Men in Black movies. But it would have been something, a potentially risky and possibly ill-advised take on a piece of intellectual property that doesn't really inspire much passion. In comparison, Men in Black: International is the blandest outcome imaginable.
Directed with minimal flash by F. Gary Gray, who has made some good movies (1996's Set It Off) and some mediocre ones (2017's Fate of the Furious), Men in Black: International gets off to an underwhelming start, kicking off with a portal-based set-piece on the Eiffel Tower where the young Agent H (Hemsworth) and the grizzled supervisor High T (Liam Neeson) do battle with a powerful, deadly being from another galaxy. Lines like "Let's do this!" establish the unapologetically perfunctory vibe of the dialogue, which gets credited to Iron Man and Transformers: The Last Knight writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. This is the type of movie where characters spout clichés like "Now this is more like it," and "That's what I'm talking about," without a hint of irony. Throughout the film, phrases get delivered like punchlines, but they have almost no impact.
After plenty of laser-blasting and memory-erasing with the neuralizer (the little hand-held short-term amnesia device you likely remember from the posters), we're whisked into the past, where we meet Thompson's character, Molly, a science-loving child from Brooklyn who has her own close encounter with an alien creature and the well-dressed men who track them down. (She's introduced cradling a Stephen Hawking book in bed, so you know she's precocious.) As an adult, Molly is a vaguely Mulder-like true believer, tracking mysterious spacecraft in her free time and applying to government agencies in the hopes of infiltrating the Men in Black. Quickly, Molly finds her way into the group's headquarters and convinces the head of the American wing, Emma Thompson's Agent O, that she deserves a try-out.
On paper, it's a mildly clever idea -- Molly is an obsessive "fan" who seeks the prestige and excitement of an organization portrayed as fundamentally mundane and largely anonymous in Barry Sonnenfeld's original movie -- but execution is off from the start because Men in Black: International never bothers to set up the Agents as custodian-like figures. From the jump, they're always walking into nightclubs, getting into shoot-outs, or stumbling into car chases. Hemsworth's Agent H is portrayed as a borderline-depressive Martin Riggs-like rebel and a James Bond-like spy depending on the narrative demands of a given scene. Other characters keep saying he's changed, but it's hard to know exactly what that means since we never get a good read on him.
In fact, it's hard to get a good read on any single character or plot point since the movie keeps bouncing from scene to scene with little sense of pace or purpose. There's certainly enough plot: In addition to preventing an alien war and protecting a world-destroying weapon, Molly must also attempt to sniff out a mole in the Men in Black. Along the way, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) does his best with a thankless cute critter sidekick role, Kayvan Novak (What We Do in the Shadows) pops up as a man with sentient facial hair, and Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible - Fallout) struggles to figure out how to play a bizarrely written role as an arms dealer with zebra-colored hair and an extra arm. Nothing really sticks.
That's the biggest problem: Despite the evident charisma of Hemsworth and Thompson, the movie can't figure out why it should exist. Obviously, the original Men in Black wasn't exactly a daring art-film, but Ed Solomon's script was built around an idea that there was an unknown world hiding in the margins around us. Whole galaxies could exist in marbles. A cute pug might be an interstellar tough guy. Vincent D'Onofrio could be a bug. Men in Black: International's imagination feels about as expansive and wide-reaching as an Excel spreadsheet on a studio executive's iPad. If this was the movie they were going to make, they should've just given us the Jump Street version. At least those guys would've left the whole thing in ruins.