After a childhood encounter with an alien, Molly (Tessa Thompson) reaches adulthood having eschewed all attachments and relationships – her sole goal to join the Men in Black, and to learn the truth of what is “out there”. Demonstrating exceptional ingenuity, she manages to infiltrate the bureau, and bring herself to the attention of Agent O (Emma Thompson). Seeing Molly’s potential, O dubs the new probationer “Agent M”, and sends her to the London branch – run by High T (Liam Neeson).
Once in London, M is paired with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a figure legendary for saving the World, in Paris, in 2016 from a deadly invading force known as “The Hive”. M and H work together to establish whether the Hive has returned, while M seeks to establish if there is a mole within MiB; all while she is learning that H may not measure up to his legend.
Men in Black: International had to happen at some point. An established intellectual property – from a studio lacking a huge number of those – the series was always likely to return; with a younger line-up and variation on location (and female lead) really all the series had left to give that might look at all fresh. As the chemistry of the two lead agents would be key, casting Hemsworth and Thompson makes sense, after their time together in Thor: Ragnarok. The question would be how to reintroduce a series that has little remaining cultural footprint in 2019.
The answer seems to be to focus group it to death. Nothing here feels organic – at all. It’s also a story told without any real love or passion; more a series of check-boxes. It’s possible to see the film answering the concerns and questions of studio executives: is this in continuity with the previous films? Put Emma Thompson at the beginning and end… maybe add a little visual nod to Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones not appearing, but referenced obliquely). Why have problems arisen in London if the bureau is legendarily competent and efficient? Well maybe if we say H has taken his eye off the ball since he saved the world. Why? Dunno.
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This lack of focus to the story extends to structure. We start with a flashback to 2016, then go to c. 1996, before arriving in the present day. This really does look like there was a debate behind the scenes as to where the film should begin – and everyone won! It’s messy, and bodes badly for a film that had already begun with titles the visuals of which have not been updated since 1997. Even the CG, though improved, still has a hint of that slightly cheap looking, rubbery finish from the earlier days of such work.
Although the point of the agents of Men in Black is that they have no distinguishing characteristics, lose their names and attachments, and do not share background information on themselves, the lack of any attention to character work here is on a different level entirely. This is most notable in Hemsworth’s Agent H. It is entirely possible to see why the writers decided to make him a bit of a waster. It helps to explain why there has been a threat developing at the bureau – their best agent has been asleep at the wheel – and it’s a pretty standard plot device to allow a young agent to come in, both to perk him up, and to remind him of who he used to be. The problem is, the film does nothing with it. This smacks, also, of creativity by committee. Somebody, somewhere decided he would be a partying fool, perhaps hinting at a hidden pain. The hive mind (no pun intended) also seemed to get as far as it would be linked to the events of 2016. Then – nothing. Audiences will never know whether those events led him to take his foot off the gas because he’d been lauded as a hero; whether there has been some other trauma in the interim; or whether there is some detail of that evening we’re missing. A final act reveal actually makes this cloudier, rather than clearer.
Dialogue is really poor, with what are meant to be spiky exchanges coming off as little better than something you’d expect to hear from children. F. Gary Gray looks fully in director-for-hire mode here, as he brings nothing fresh to the look, feel or sound of the film. The cars and CG (just) aside, this could be 1997, and the work of Barry Sonnenfeld. Even the comedy stylings of the pug, Frank (here in a small cameo) are replicated closely by a new introduction.
Thompson and Hemsworth (at times 100% in James Bond audition mode) have decent chemistry, and do well with weak material. Rafe Spall as Agent C (that moniker a reasonable reflection of the standard of comedy) supports in an utterly thankless and completely predictable role. Neeson and Thompson are… Neeson and Thompson – always decent.
In a world where there were no pressures on the financial performance of both films and studios, Men in Black: International would never exist. There is just no story here, and – after the 1997 original – there never was. A fun, playful film has led on to a series of four, three of which have been, to varying degrees, weak. With gaps of five, ten, and now seven years between instalments, it’s clear Sony know this too. There has never been an audience clamour for the quick turnaround of more of this. There remains the name recognition though. Hence, every few years we receive another entry. We’re assured it’s in the same continuity – in case it’s suddenly critically lauded and commercially massive – so all options can be kept open; but the lack of variety of what can be done with agents with no personal lives, where the only variant is which alien is a threat this time, means we’ll keep getting riffs on the same thing. That is the most offensive thing about this inoffensive, forgettable piece of work.