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Movie Review: “Men in Black: International”

The revival may have casting chemistry, but greatly lacks chemistry in its material.

Image by Giles Keyte courtesy of Columbia Pictures via EPK.tv

One thing you cannot deny either Tessa Thompson or Chris Hemsworth is personal chemistry. Their magnetism and appeal are automatic, especially when combined together. We’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok and their work in other places. However, that’s not always enough. The material has to have chemistry too to allow the starry elements to combust. This tangential revival doesn’t have it. Tessa and Chris might glow like radium, but Men in Black: International is an inert gas, fleeting and faint.

Tessa Thompson carries the kind of presence in each of her roles that you cannot help but root for. You want her character to succeed so that her eyebrows lift and her wide smile of accomplishment and indulgence rules the silver screen. Her Molly is a Brooklynite who was never “neutralized” by the intergalactic policemen in plain suits and sunglasses as a kid after an extraterrestrial encounter. She grows up longing to discover and join their clandestine ranks. When she follows the digital and tabloid breadcrumbs to stumble into their facility and impress the presiding Agent O (a returning Emma Thompson), Tessa’s beaming begins as the eager and probationary Agent M soaks up the dazzles and delights of the job to take on the universe.

Chris Hemsworth can melt hearts, blind eyes, and pop buttons simply by winking and smiling. When the guy takes his shirt off or nails a zinger of a joke, the wattage generated could power a small country for a short time. His Agent H is the top gun of the London MIB office and the walking embodiment of the actor’s external coolness with a little touch of patterned socks and colorful suit linings to up the pizazz oozing from his bangs above the plain, black-and-white uniform. He has saved the entire world once already beside his boss High T (Liam Neeson) and will need to do it again when the assassination of an alien leader by a pair of malicious and unstoppable shape-shifting spectres (played by the Les Twins, hip-hop dancers from France) brings turmoil to Earth.

Just as expected, team the two up and the potential is all there. They look the part and the movie looks the part as well. Composer Danny Elfman, backed by a new discipline in TV specialist Chris Bacon, brings back his original marching musical cues. Prolific blockbuster production designer Charles Wood (6 MCU credits), Pirates of the Caribbean series costume designer Penny Rose, and a sizable prop department provide the shiny futuristic surfaces and slime-spattering tools. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has a grand eye and director F. Gary Gray has complete competency to orchestrate just about anything.

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth star in "Men in Black: International"
Image by Giles Keyte courtesy of Columbia Pictures via EPK.tv

This all feels like a proper Men in Black movie ready for a new era and audience. Where it fails is its trajectory once its stars and settings are all dressed up. Tessa Thompson becomes an extremely convenient wunderkind genius (see also, and these aren’t my preferred words, “Mary Sue”) who dominates when she should get lucky. Instead of squeezing true champion swagger, Chris Hemsworth is turned into another himbo dolt (think Ghostbusters) who gets lucky when he should dominate. Both charms wear off in the first third of the movie.

Men in Black: International goes nowhere you haven’t seen three times. The folks at Screen Junkies nailed the prototypical plot path with a recent MIB-themed “Honest Trailer” stating: “…shows (someone) the ropes while being hunted by a villain who can kill people instantly, unless you’re the heroes, as they search for an all-powerful device that was right under their noses all along.” All of those tropes have barely changed for this new globetrotting chase. Agent M is your new rookie, the Les Twins are extremely selective about their body count, and the Mini-MacGuffin of the movie can destroy entire stars and collapse to fit in your pocket.

Folks, that is lazy and virtually Xerox-level writing from screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, the team that brought us Transformers: The Last Knight and Punisher: War Zone. Three minor wrinkles are thrown in. There is a cute wiseacre miniature alien sidekick for comedy delivery purposes (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), a momentary ex-flame for Agent H for hotness purposes (played by Mission: Impossible ass-kicker Rebecca Ferguson), and an evil internal mole subplot for attempted mystery purposes that you can solve in five minutes and from light years away.

The chemistry missing from this bland and retreaded material is the will or courage to put forth anything challenging for the talent involved or the audiences coming to watch. None of those three narrative or character additions add enough freshness and the seemingly obligatory shout-out for gender equality (see also Dark Phoenix) feels half-hearted. Everything (and we get why when Sony and dollar signs are involved) has been softened and kiddified for a younger audience. The spooky and icky quirks of the original film and its deranged level of mayhem are all squelched for safe popcorn instead of spicy treats.

F. Gary Gray is better and edgier than this. This movie misses the weirdness of Barry Sonnenfeld who must be banned to the cathouse after Nine Lives from 2016. Any level of homage or emulation in this cinematic reintroduction feels like a cash grab instead of a serious attempt to create something pulpy and worthy of the franchise’s roots. If that triteness wasn’t apparent enough, the signature takeaway is a repetitive pithy proverb from Neeson’s head honcho that waxes “Always remember, the universe has a way of leading you to where you’re supposed to be, at the moment you’re supposed to be there.” They are his Master Oogway Kung-Fu Panda moments in between his censored Bryan Mills gruff. Juggling “unstable passion,” “constant logic,” and “chemical reactions” (nice try) as gears the universe runs on, the movie desperately orchestrates this lesson to match the “truth of the universe”-seeking drive of Molly. This syrupy convenience on the topic fate thin enough for a fortune cookie insert is the highest height of any attempted depth in Men in Black: International. That should tell you something.

 


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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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