When does a Men In Black film stop feeling like a Men In Black film? With Men In Black: International, the fourth instalment in the alien-blasting franchise, Sony struggles to find a sweet spot where a MIB movie can still work with certain elements taken out and other stuff added in.
The original stars, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, are definitively out, with Thor: Ragnarok duo Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson stepping in to fill the gap. But while Taika Waititi’s improv-heavy God Of Thunder threequel allowed them to showcase hitherto-unglimpsed sides to their screen personas, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s Men In Black: International script deals both of its stars with dud hands.
Gone is the pathos that Hemsworth has cultivated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with his emotional range hampered by Agent H and his cocky, irritating swagger. Gone too is the funnybone that Thompson displayed as Valkyrie, with her Agent M being a bookish, nervous character that rarely comes out of her shell. There’s proof here that, although these actors do undoubtedly have great chemistry, they can only work with what they’re given. They can only elevate this film so far. And as the plot pings them around the globe on a series of MacGuffin-chasing missions, you’ll probably wish you’d stayed at home with the Ragnarok Blu-ray.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t elements to their characters that will pique your interest. Both of them, in fact, have backstories that are markedly more engaging than their main storylines in the film. Hemsworth’s H once saved the world (alongside Liam Neeson’s High T) and Thompson’s M managed to survive an alien entanglement as a child with her memory still intact. She spent years trying to track down the Men In Black, as proven by a fun early montage that shows M with agency, smarts and charisma. Sadly, though, these winning attributes mostly disappear when she joins the MIB and the film’s main plot gets started.
Another element that has changed since the franchise’s origins is the visual style. The traditional black suits still appear, but they’re quickly replaced with cool modern designs or ditched altogether. The iconic Noisy Cricket gun appears for a second, but it’s swapped out instantaneously in favour of massive-but-less-memorable blasters. The quirky font from the opening titles is still present, but it’s surrounded by the sort of swooping-through-space visuals that draw to mind Superman: The Movie‘s opening.
On their own, these little changes are easy to ignore (or you might even enjoy them), but they do point to a larger situation: this new film, presumably due to a studio mandate, is aiming to be big, bombastic and modern, which isn’t really what the original Men In Black films were. Those films hinged on the properly funny interplay between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, as they bumbled through some lo-fi adventures. This new movie centres on underwhelming banter between unremarkable characters, and it surrounds them with massive, CGI-heavy action sequences.
The action isn’t necessarily bad in Men In Black: International. In fact, a sci-fi bike chase through Marrakech is shot very nicely and ends with a nice big bang. But there’s rarely any emotional stakes to go with the computer-generated spectacle, and the villains that our heroes go up against really don’t bring anything memorable to their fight scenes. French dance duo Les Twins certainly have moves, but the alien assassins they play never feel like much of a threat. Certainly, their CGI-infused powers never send a shiver up your spine like Vincent D’Onofrio’s creepy physical performance did in the first film.
It’s not just Hemsworth, Thompson and Les Twins who struggle to make an impact. The supporting cast is packed with talented people that don’t get to shine: Kumail Nanjiani, who is so funny and charming in The Big Sick and Silicon Valley, struggles to deliver any chuckles as his tiny alien sidekick Pawny; Emma Thompson, who is shining in cinemas right now with Late Night, only gets to wear funky outfits and dish out orders; and Rebecca Ferguson, who won legions of admirers with her turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, here receives an underwhelming fight scene, an unnecessary third arm and a very bad wig.
The film is ably directed by F. Gary Gray and the special effects always look high-end, and there’s no denying that the cast boasts loads of likeable actors, but there’s something here that just doesn’t click. You might get a thrill from the action scenes, and you might admire Thompson’s M during her introduction, but you probably won’t leave the cinema feeling like you’ve been consistently entertained. You certainly won’t have a sore throat from laughing too much, and you also won’t be wiping any tears away because of a big emotional reaction.
So, when does a Men In Black film stop feeling like a Men In Black film? Well, you can take out all sorts of things and replace them with shiny new alternatives, and the result might look like a perfectly functional film with some nice special effects and tight action sequences. But if the heart and the humour of the original is lost, and you don’t replace it with anything remarkable, you’ll end up with a film like Men In Black: International. It may be a Men In Black film on paper, but the soul of the series is missing and the experience of watching it is mostly a letdown. Has anyone got a neuralyzer?