Men in Black International Review

In the interest of honesty, I’ll freely admit that I’m not the kind of critic who takes notes during screenings. If I did take notes, though, I know that the words “adrift” and “lost” would have come up often in whatever I jotted down while watching Men in Black International, the fourth film in the science-fiction action-comedy franchise that extends more than two decades. In spite of a seemingly unbeatable new duo donning slick black suits, shiny sunglasses, and other fancy duds, Men in Black International is a particularly rough film to watch, genuinely unable to tell a good, even moderately entertaining story.

Tessa Thompson stars as Molly, a young New York woman who’s been fascinated with the prospect of aliens and the fabled Men in Black since she was a girl and her parents got neuralyzed by the mysterious MIB. Molly is exceptionally intelligent, but she’s essentially a superfan who stalks her way into the MIB headquarters, where she proves her worth to Emma Thompson’s head agent. So, after a laughably brief training montage, the newly christened Agent M travels to London, where she’s partnered with the louche but well-liked Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) to solve a mystery that might be related to a years-past showdown he and his boss High T (Liam Neeson) had with a nasty extraterrestrial in Paris.

It takes a lot of work — far more than should be necessary — to get Hemsworth and Thompson back on screen as Agents M and H, after they first sparked with chemistry in the delightful MCU entry Thor: Ragnarok. Though Hemsworth is once again channeling the comic energy he brought to both Ragnarok and the recent reboot of Ghostbusters, the material he’s working with here is scattered and flat. He and Thompson have a few nice moments in Men in Black International that serve as a reminder of what made them charming, but they are minor oases in a vast cinematic desert.

The script, credited to Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, smacks of having been written and rewritten throughout production, literally on the day that each scene was shot. One of the more humorless agents of the London branch of Men in Black, played by Rafe Spall, at one point criticizes Agents H and M for making it up as they go along, a comment that applies doubly to the plot. Where the original Men in Black, so fleet in pacing and so stacked with wonderfully wry and deadpan humor, boasted a genuinely terrifying villain, Men in Black International has a vague threat posed by an unseen alien (or group of aliens, it’s never entirely clear) called the Hive. Though the posed threat is towards the entire world, there’s never any clear sense of the conflict at the film’s center. It’s just a lot of random globe-trotting, often accompanied by a distinct sense that there’s no purpose for any given setpiece.

Director F. Gary Gray neither detracts from or adds to the experience of watching the film. The comedy throughout is largely unsuccessful, in part because it misses the ultra-dry timing brought to the previous films by Barry Sonnenfeld. Partly, though, the humor here just ain’t funny. The sole exception is a very tiny alien who helps out Agent M throughout the second half, voiced by comedian Kumail Nanjiani. He is, unsurprisingly, quite enjoyable, but his character feels as if it was either added entirely in post-production, or he was given free reign to riff in the recording booth and more good gags were added in thanks to his innate comic gifts.

The other problem with the script is that its third-act reveal (because, of course, there is a third-act reveal) is aggressively telegraphed from the early going. The level at which the script calls attention to the reveal seems to suggest that the reveal itself is a red herring (it is not), or that the filmmakers didn’t have any faith in the audience to pick up on their very obvious signs. Where Men in Black was shrewd in its storytelling, MIB International seems hellbent on being as inept as it presumes its audience is.

Of course, now that we’ve had three sequels, it’s more than safe to proclaim that while Men in Black was a brilliant fusion of science fiction and character-driven comedy, its follow-ups just could not recapture that lightning in a bottle. Men in Black International sure seemed like it could’ve worked. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson aren’t just talented, charismatic actors; they’ve bounced off each other before in another genre hybrid with unexpected laughs and whip-smart writing. Men in Black International, then, is a case of a movie that fails to capture lightning in a bottle twice, a truly sorry affair indeed.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.