Film Review: “Men in Black: International” Is Pleasant, If Pedestrian

Film poster: “Men in Black: International”

Men in Black: International (F. Gary Gray, 2019) out of 4 stars.

Back in 2012, the keepers of the Men in Black cinematic franchise served up a delicious third course for the series, largely making up for the less inspired second helping of ten years prior. In that conclusion to the original trilogy, we traveled back in time to meet Josh Brolin, in a brilliant bit of casting, as a young Tommy Lee Jones, with a very game and appealing Will Smith joining him in comic sci-fi mayhem. That particular storyline ended then, but the ever profit-hungry guardians of Hollywood tentpoles decided that more was more, and so here we are with a new entry – a reboot, of sorts, albeit with new characters and a brief nod (via a portrait on the wall) to the existence of our former protagonists – featuring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the leads. The actors delight, even if the script does not or, at least, not much.

Barry Sonnenfeld, who helmed the other three films, is gone, replaced by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), who brings competence but little flair, working off a screenplay by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (who together previously worked on Transformers: The Last Knight). Thompson (Little Woods) is the heart of the movie, playing Agent M (for Molly), a young woman whose entire life has been spent obsessing over not only aliens but the mysterious black-suited operatives who protect humans from them, after surreptitiously catching them in action as a child. As the film begins, she successfully tracks down the “Men in Black” (or MiB), and though they want to neuralize her (i.e., wipe her memory), she convinces the current Chief, Agent O (Emma Thompson, The Children Act), to keep her on as a trainee. From there, she’s off to London, where, as Agent O declares, “there’s trouble.”

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL ©Columbia Pictures

Once across the pond, M meets H (for Henry), played by Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok), a charming and once-talented agent who has lost his way. Together, they team up to avert a crisis that could, as usual, lead to the end of the world. Along the way, they trade humorous barbs, flirt (something new for the series) and prove invaluable the one to the other in preventing the destruction of the planet. They are ably assisted by the likes of Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) and Liam Neeson (Widows), with Nanjiani, especially, as the voice of a diminutive extraterrestrial named Pawny, one of the highlights of the film. Thompson and Hemsworth work extremely together, she mostly brains and he mostly instinct (though they each rub off the one on the other), and their engaging interplay frequently propels us past the pedestrian plot points.

It’s an enjoyable enough summer blockbuster, but hardly an inspired one. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been tried before, though the addition of a female protagonist and the brief discussion it raises about the name “Men in Black” (which Thompson’s Agent O dismisses with a quip) hint at a more radical overhaul that never happens. Still, the action flows nicely and the stars are pleasant to watch, even if the film never rises above generic expectations.

Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) in MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL ©Columbia Pictures

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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