By Preston Wilder
Let’s be honest: how excited are we really for Men in Black: International, 22 years after the first one and a full seven years after the disposable Men in Black 3? (I have vague memories of Time-travel, and Tommy Lee Jones looking old and fed-up.) The hype machine has been dutifully churning out hype. At the Cineplex last week, you could see not just a trailer but also a tie-in with a brand of designer dark glasses (“Do you have what it takes to wear the glasses?”). On the internet – specifically popsugar.co.uk – you can find headlines like ‘Here’s How Men in Black: International Fits Into the Rest of the MiB Universe’. Even the subtitle is a nod to the fact that the non-US market is where Hollywood makes most of its money these days – though in fact the film isn’t really so ‘international’: everyone’s either American or British (as opposed to merely American) and it mostly takes place in London and New York, with generic cameos for an Arab souk and the Eiffel Tower. Typical, really.
That said, the timing is right for a Men in Black reboot. The franchise ran mostly on banter, pitting smartass Will Smith against TLJ’s grumpy deadpan – and banter is the currency of the blockbuster realm at the moment, thanks to the Avengers. The presence of Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth reinforces the Marvel connection, though in fact the reboot trades on an even trendier angle, viz. the introduction of a woman: Tessa Thompson (who was also in Marvel, as Valkyrie) is Agent M, who’s been wanting to be a Man – er, Person – in Black ever since a childhood encounter with a baby alien known as a Tarantian (the Tarantian then disappears from the story – or does it???). She finally finds what she’s looking for, following a wormhole to the MiB headquarters where Agent O (Emma Thompson) decides to give her a chance – though the name remains an embarrassment. “‘Men’…?” queries Tessa delicately, speaking not just woman to woman but Thompson to Thompson. “Don’t,” sighs Emma; “Don’t start. I’ve had the conversation.”
The film starts off lively, then runs out of steam. You’d think seven years would be long enough to come up with a clever plot, or at least fill two hours with consistently strong comic business – but in fact the plot is the usual tired tale of a magical gizmo and the alien baddies who want to get hold of it, while the tone of the film varies wildly. Men in Black is a rather schizophrenic franchise, having been a comic book and kids’ TV cartoon in addition to the movies – and the first half of International recalls the snappy Noo Yawk tone of the first MiB while the second hour gets a lot more kid-friendly. The ‘12’ rating seems about to be stretched early on, with M accusing H (that’s Chris) of pimping her out to visiting aliens – but then we’re introduced to a small, mushroom-shaped alien sidekick called ‘Pawny’ who becomes a kind of mascot, the pace flags, the cute factor gets alarmingly high and the jokes correspondingly duller. It’s like riding a bike, H is told as he mounts a type of intergalactic scooter – then it shoots off, with our hero struggling to control it; “This is not like riding a bike at all!”. It’s all a bit lame.
The central dynamic helps, reversing the relationship between J and K in the previous films: the veteran is now the vain, sloppy maverick, while the newbie is the serious-minded partner. Both stars are charming (even if the bid to engineer a romantic angle gets a little strained) and the aliens are fun, as usual. One has a brain for a head – not exactly a brain, but a kind of gelatinous mass from the neck up – another is a literal ‘four eyes’, with two pairs of eyes behind two pairs of spectacles. M meets a pair of shoes with what looks like a pair of false teeth inside each shoe, and there’s also an alien girl who literally slows time down when H walks by, watching him in slo-mo because he’s “so yummy”. Hemsworth is a good sport as usual, happy to make some obscure feminist point by playing the himbo sex object; Thompson is terrific, as soulful in her way as Tommy Lee Jones and a good deal less grumpy.
Still, the good stuff only goes so far. “Something is wrong in Men in Black,” warns an anxious alien – and he means MiB the organisation, which apparently harbours a mole, but MiB the franchise doesn’t get off scot-free either. The Columbia ‘torch lady’ dons a pair of shades in the opening logo, in the same way that the ‘X’ in 20th-Century Fox lingered for a few seconds in last week’s Dark Phoenix – and this, like X-Men, is a franchise that only persists because Hollywood studios are obsessed with franchises, and afraid to try anything new. Men in Black: International is okay – and enjoyable enough for about an hour – but are we excited? Not really.
DIRECTED BY F. Gary Gray
STARRING Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson
US 2019 114 mins