Not long into the first act of Men in Black: International, a thought popped into my mind that I just couldn’t shake. It’s not a particularly controversial musing, but it’s certainly something I never expected to believe, so bear with me: I miss the foregone days of a Barry Sonnenfeld comedy.
Sure, the Golden Raspberry Award-winning director gave us some of the most abysmal films of the past twenty years, but before there was Wild Wild West and RV, there were the critically acclaimed Get Shorty, both Christina Ricci-starring Adams Family films and most significantly, 1997’s Men in Black. Odds are if you’re reading this review, you’re familiar with the Will Smith-starring action adventure comedy, which only works because it’s too smart to play it cool. Twenty-two years later, Men in Black: International does its best to recapture the spirit of the original, but it stumbles nearly every step of the way.
A large portion of its failings fall onto the shoulders of F. Gary Gray, who despite breaking onto the scene with the 1995 Ice Cube vehicle Friday, isn’t a comedy director. His biggest hits have mostly been action-oriented blockbusters, like The Italian Job and The Fate of the Furious, and the flashy N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, his one almost-Oscar-baity outlier. Sonnenfeld has long said cutting is the enemy of comedy, and Gray’s aforementioned films are built on the foundation of quick, cut-on-action editing, which he can’t help but bring to this effort. There’s no subtly, with each joke loudly announcing itself from the moment the Columbia Pictures’ logo puts on a pair of Ray-Ban shades of her own.
Much as in the original Men in Black, the quasi-sequel follows the adventures of an odd couple pairing of agents – this time portrayed by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson – but our new duo of heroes is no Agent J and Agent K. Hemsworth’s Agent H is as effortlessly handsome as he is recklessly irresponsible, who is constantly at odds with Thompson’s Agent M, a whip-smart rookie who speaks in sarcasm. Having previously partnered up for the much more successful Thor: Ragnarok, one would expect Hemsworth and Thompson to have some sort of prearranged chemistry, but the actors spend most of their screen time together talking at each other instead of to each other.
The script gives each character a healthy dose of expository backstory, but it’s mostly via throwaway dialogue or a hodgepodge of sequences that barely track. Hemsworth receives the worst of it, introduced as carefree rapscallion who was once MIB’s top agent, but now micro-naps at his desk when he’s not sleeping his way through the criminal underground. Over the course of the film, multiple characters remark that he’s changed in recent years, but the story doesn’t take the time to really show us how even after the third act lazily reveals why.
In fact, most of MIB: International’s story feels shrouded in ambiguity, not just because it revolves around a needlessly-complex mystery, but because so many character beats seemed jettisoned for flashy spectacle. Rafe Spall and Liam Neeson appear throughout the movie as different versions of the same by-the-books archetype, interchangeably aiding and obstructing Agent H’s ne’er-do-well ways. Emma Thompson’s Agent O, one of the few returning players from a previous Men in Black film, pops up here and there only to remind you that this movie wasted her dynamic screen presence. And the antagonistic alien duo played by dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois probably looked incredible as concept art, but kind of fizzle out in its digital execution.
In fact, each attempt at CGI spectacle fails to live up to Rick Baker’s Academy Award-winning special effects of the first film two decades earlier. Not a single alien character feels real, nor can I think of one that wasn’t brought to the big screen through some form of glossy digital enhancement. The worst of which may come in the form of Kumail Nanjiani’s Pawny, a little CGI alien who only pops up when a joke is needed to punctuate a scene. Considering no human characters ever really respond to Pawny’s awkward cutaways, the voiceover role distinctly feels like it was mostly written in a sound booth on the day it was recorded.
Overall, for a film series that at once felt so grounded, Men in Black: International only delves deeper and deeper into intergalactic pageantry. Whereas the original found humor in sly observations and smart characterizations, this modern day update has replaced it with discarded Marvel quips and goofy indifference and fully suffers for it. While it’s too early to tell if its box office run will warrant a sequel, maybe it’s better off to for Sony to take a page out of the Men in Black rulebook and hide this franchise out of sight.
Twenty-two years later, Men in Black: International does its best to keep up with the spirit of the original film, but it stumbles nearly every step of the way.