In the original Men In Black, 1997’s loopy Barry Sonnenfeld comedy about a secret government agency that polices alien activity on The planet, there’s a sequence that plays with misunderstanding as much as it sets up the coming action. New agent Jay (Will Smith) is talking with medical examiner Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), unaware that a dangerous, grotesque alien is hidden in the gurney between them, clutching her ankle and holding her under the gun. As Laurel tries to alert Jay to the danger, or get him to escort her to safety, he mistakes her behavior for a sexual come-on. “There’s something I need to show you,” she says, pointing down at the alien, though it looks like she’s pointing at her own crotch. “Mmm, decelerate, girl, you ain’t got ta hit the gas like that!” Jay says, perfectly pleased with where the interaction seems becoming heading. It’s a hilariously dumb sequence, but its easygoing, mildly raunchy humor and refusal to take its own life-or-death threats too seriously is a lot of what made the first Men In Black such a hit, worthy spawning two cinematic sequels, an animated TV spinoff, and multiple electronic game.
That particular style of humor is a big aspect of what’s missing from the series’ latest installment, Men In Black: International, a modern update that ups the ante on the special effects and takes the action around the world. MIB: I is a perfectly fine piece of summer entertainment, tolerant the brain and big on the shiny spectacle. But it feels polished to a fault, packed with straight-faced sincerity as an alternative to Will Smith’s smarmy self-satisfaction or Tommy Lee Jones’ crisp, brutally insensitive professionalism. It’s a kinder, gentler Men In Black, without any of the sharp edges, makes it feel curiously calm and inert. It’s still funny, but only mildly. And it still takes place in a dangerous world packed with invading aliens, but already, the threat seems familiar and predictable.
Tessa Thompson (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Valkyrie, and co-star of Annihilation and Dear White People) stars as Molly, a precocious go-getter who, in childhood, considers Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time light bedtime reading, and in adulthood is obsessed with finding and joining the Men In Black organization. After a childhood close encounter where she met an alien and saw a pair of MIB agents mind-wipe her parents, she based her life around finding and infiltrating the MIBs. As a grown-up, she’s a hacker, a scholar, an athlete, and a prime catch for groups like the FBI and CIA, until she realizes none are affiliated with the MIB. When she finally does break into MIB headquarters, she confronts local department head O (Emma Thompson) and pleads for a chance to prove herself. O reluctantly redubs her as provisionary Agent M and sends her to London, where she teams up with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) about what’s supposed to be a low-key escort mission, and rapidly blossoms into a lot more.
The H&M dynamic is an old, familiar one, from many angles. He’s the reckless loner who thinks he’s too good for a partner; she’s the team player who’s out to impress everyone. They’re mismatched buddy cops from radically different backgrounds and with different worldviews. They’re a casual veteran who knows the ropes and an overeager rookie bent on prove herself. They’re a sloppy, coasting dude and an uptight, overqualified lady who clash, but are destined to meet somewhere in the middle as they impress one another.
What they aren’t, though, is Smith and Jones from the original trilogy, respecting each other but still needling one another hard enough to hurt. From the beginning, Hemsworth and Thompson have an amiable, low-intensity dynamic that keeps the banter from being particularly sharp or witty, and that makes the stakes feel low no matter how the plotline shifts.
And their characters are similarly soft-edged: M is intense enough to impress O, but never intense enough to be annoying or off-putting. And people keep saying H has changed and is no longer the fantastic agent he used to be certainly, but his missteps are minimal and understandable, and his character flaws are mostly “a little too bluff about his work and a little too convinced of his own charisma.” Writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum seem too involved with making certain that everyone likes these characters at every moment, and also means keeping them blandly competent and charming, with minimal faults and mistakes.
Which makes Men In Black: International feel safe and unchallenging at almost every moment. There’s an abundance of the goofy alien action from the first three movies, plus the inevitable actually threatening aliens, mostly played by Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois (dancer/ designer duo Les Twins) in literal clouds of special effects. Their unnamed invaders– who can change solids to liquids and back in microseconds, and travel in jerking, unpredictable lurches similar to Samara in The Ring– fitfully give the film some of the actual menace it needs. Kumail Nanjiani also voices an alien, a little green armored pawn from a royal family of chess pieces, imaginatively named “Pawny.” He injects a lot of the sharper, meaner gags in the script, but it’s hard not to notice that he’s almost entirely superfluous to the action, and rarely seems like more than a plugged-in joke-delivery system.
The feeling of disconnect– of characters who say they’re in conflict, but don’t have many real conflicts, of tonally diverse elements patched together into a loose quilt, of characters that don’t cohere and are just around to snipe in jokes– extends throughout every aspect of Men In Black: International, but it’s most prominent in the editing, which often feels as though entire scenes are missing, as if F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Fate of the Furious) hoped no person would notice provided that things moved fast enough. The story often feels choppy, for instance when the MIB first approach Molly’s parents about the alien they’ve confronted, then make no effort to corral it before Neuralyzing them and leaving, or when H appears to teleport from a meeting to being asleep at his desk.
There are similarly some big questions around the larger plot, involving the history between H and London branch head High T (Liam Neeson), the suggestion that their department has a mole, and the tensions between Agent C (Rafe Spall) and H. The majority of people who know basic cinematic conventions will see all of MIB: I’s twists coming, then spin out a series of “But if that holds true, this makes no sense any more” conjectures.
But Men In Black: International isn’t really about complicated character interactions or big twists. It’s an affable effects movie, mostly about the fantasy of being in the know about “the truth of the universe,” as Molly puts it, and about facing down aliens with spy-hard skills and giant shiny guns. Hemsworth and Thompson are genial enough people to spend a couple of hours on, but as stars, they take a back seat to the film’s array of digital weapons, creatures, environments, battles, and agents. This is a denser, more Star Wars-esque Men In Black than ever before, with even more goofy aliens working at the agency or making their way in the world, to the point where it’s easy to wonder exactly how many actual humans are left on Earth. (Possibly not many, given how much of the MIB’s activity takes place out in the open. It’s hard to believe no one’s ever around when their cars turn to supersonic jets, or their glowing opponents start melting cars into barriers.).
And for audiences who are okay with two hours of perfectly passable, utterly unobjectionable effects, fixated a couple of cheerfully friendly faces, Men In Black: International is certainly an acceptable way to spend a long time. It could use a few risks, and maybe a little less straight-faced, aching sincerity. It could use some tension between the leads that feels real. It could use some danger usually. But failing that, it manages fine as a shiny distraction. It’s rare that a blockbuster movie feels this competently, serenely middle-of-the-road, but maybe being this safe in an era of easy outrage is its own form of light, moderate, entirely bland achievement.