Men In Black: International is like a mojito you get at your next door neighbor Karen’s at the end of a long day. It’s not the best mojito, but it’ll do in a pinch. Plus the fact that she made you a mojito without asking goes a long way to overlooking its lack of perfection.
F. Gary Gray has made a type of summer blockbuster they just don’t make anymore. Maybe that’s a poor choice of words. More like blockbusters we don’t go see like we used to. Regardless, Men In Black: International with its low stakes and lack of necessary homework feels quaint by modern standards.
It is the fourth in the Men In Black franchise but does not require you to know anything about it going in. The ending is an actual ending. The characters feel like they’ve had somewhat of an arc. Lessons have been learned and emotions have grown and materialized. In other words, there are no post credit scenes and it doesn’t end with “Men In Black will return again in Men In Black Continental…”.
Which is not to say Men in Black: International will set the world on fire or is some staggering piece of artistic achievement. Then again, it’s not trying to be. It’s fluff; inconsequential, easy going, low stakes fluff. I had a perfectly good time.
Granted when your stars are Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth it’s hard not to be somewhat entertained. Thompson plays Molly, or Agent M as she’s called, while Hemsworth plays her partner Agent H. The two had gangbusters chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok.
For this one, they merely switched parts. Hemsworth is the dashing, is he or isn’t he drunk rogue with questionable competency. Thompson, this time around, gets to be the eager awestruck sober voice of reason.
I loved Thompson as the fangirlish nerd desperate to find meaning through a clandestine government organization. It’s hard not to chuckle once M stumbles upon a Men In Black work site. She instantly strips off her street clothes to reveal a Men In Black uniform underneath. Smart, resourceful, and snarky Thompson sells it within seconds of coming on screen and never once resorts to falling or tripping over herself.
Hemsworth can play H in his sleep but thankfully he doesn’t. He bubbles with a sense of cluelessness but never so much as we think “How did he get this job?” He has a natural charm. Put him next to Thompson and the result is an aura of relaxed cool.
Gray wastes little time in getting the ball rolling. We start off in 2016 with H and Agent T (Liam Neeson) facing off against The Hive atop the Eiffel Tower. Who or what is The Hive is only alluded to. It’s a classic science fiction trope, “The Name’s the Thing,” in which the name of the race oftentimes sums up the race’s appearance and/or personality.
If Men In Black: International has a mood it can be described as Emma Thompson and Tessa Thompson in suits. If you need further explanation than perhaps this movie is not for you. Suffice to say it is a mood I am very much here for.
Emma Thompson plays Agent O. She’s the head of the Men In Black who catches Molly sneaking around headquarters. Molly begs and pleads for the job and O just can’t help but be a little intrigued. “She really hacked into NORAD,” she asks an underling. “In the old days, we would have hired her.”
Unlike other franchise installments, Men In Black: International is not interested in setting up or continuing a story already being told. It only wishes to focus on the story it’s telling right now. The story being there is a mole within the agency. If that weren’t enough it appears The Hive has returned and set out to assassinate a high ranking alien official visiting Earth.
Sadly, the script by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway never feels as if they had anywhere to go with all of this. The story contains: the return of a species called The Hive, ferreting out a mole inside a top secret government organization, and watching H and M warm to each other. Now you would think all of this would seem to be more than enough fodder for a feature-length film. In the end, however, it feels as if we’ve been spinning our wheels the whole time. To be honest as entertaining as the movie is and as globe-trotting as it wants to be, the movie as a whole feels slight.
The problem is we feel like we’re going from one place to another without any real rhyme or reason. On top of that Men In Black: International seems to downplay the fact that it has baked into its very core a political statement which just so happens to reflect the current state of affairs.
The original Men In Black was a comment on immigration. It just was. Just because you never noticed it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The opening scene of the first movie literally has Tommy Lee Jones posing as an INS agent overruling Border Patrol and releasing a van of captured immigrants, or “aliens.”
We are currently amidst what could be politely called an “immigration crisis.” Rightly it should be called a humanitarian crisis. While Men In Black: International by no means skirts these issues, it doesn’t seem as overtly concerned as its predecessors. Molly meets several aliens who tell her their stories. She is plainly moved by them. The Eiffel tower is revealed to be a one-time galactical Ellis Island.
The movie is endeavoring to say that there should be multiple Ellis Islands. Marcum and Holloway’s script has all of this on the edges where it is both easily missed and easily imbibed subconsciously. At best, it feels as if they’ve lowered the core political message to accidental propaganda.
A shame because Gray goes above and beyond in his technique. Shot by Stuart Dryburgh, he and Gray chose to put most of the movie in broad daylight. On the surface, this is not that daring. But consider how effects-heavy film is.
VFX and other special effects are ideally shot in low lit settings or sets where darkness is prevalent. This is done because in the dark it’s harder to see the strings, the edges of the computer generated object. The more light you have the more apparent the fake digitally added effect appear.
Dryburgh and Gray have audaciously chosen to put much of the movie, not just during the day, but in the desert with glaring sunlight. From a technical standpoint Men In Black: International has a childlike sense of play and daring about it. It helps that the special effects are usually next to Hemsworth and Thompson, two people who are essentially effects all their own.
I especially like Rebecca Ferguson as Riza, H’s ex, and illicit arms dealer. A sentimental multi-armed woman about town who has more interest in things that kill than silly old Agent H. Plus I like how the arms dealer had multiple arms and the filmmakers let the visual pun speak for itself without calling attention to it. Ferguson is almost unrecognizable under her wig and billowy dress.
Oddly the film isn’t a laugh riot. Though Kumail Nanjani has a small role as the voice of Pawny, a small alien dressed like a chess pawn. He has the herculean task of providing almost all the humor and does so effortlessly. But thanks to its two leads the film has charm out the wazoo. We live in a world where people want things to be “the worst” or “the best” and instead poor Men In Black: International is just fine.
But I can’t help recall an old saying of Gene Siskel’s. “Is the film we’re watching more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch.” To be honest, that’s a tough call. I’d have to say I’d flip a coin and be happy either way it landed.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing