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What is this, the sequel to The Notebook?

Men in Black: International
(2019)

(SPOILERS) The failure, both critically and commercially, of Sony’s limpid attempt to reignite (soft reboot) the Men in Black franchise has confirmed how desperate they are, scrabbling about for anything that might turn their fortunes around but without a scintilla of the inspiration or acumen to achieve it. They’re now on their second attempt with Ghostbusters, resuscitating Bad Boys – perhaps surprisingly, a big hit – and not making as much hay with their one smartly reinvented property (Jumanji) as they should have. And yes, they have their Spider-verse, but having all their eggs in one basket led to the downfall of the Amy Pascal regime. Despite the sad fate that befell Men in Black: International, though – the once mooted 21 Jump Street mashup would surely have been more in line with the tone of the original – it’s actually a fairly agreeable, if determinedly unremarkable movie.

Quite aside from the struggles getting a new MIB off the ground, and that the MIB heyday thing was very much historic and time capsuled, that of the halcyon, X-Files decade of the 90s when aliens and Will Smith went hand in hand, I had my doubts about this picture as soon as the director and cast were announced. I was never a huge fan of MIB, but even with the need-a-hit second instalment, they carried a definite sense of what they were about: Barry Sonnenfeld’s broad, bouncy, cartoonish visual sensibility married to Smith’s larger-than-life persona and Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan. So where did F Gary Gray fit into that, a journeyman director not exactly prized for his comedy chops? Indeed, his The Fate of the Furious is singled out by lacking – the odd Stath interlude aside – the balletic visual oomph of its better prior outings.

And what was Sony doing casting Chris Hemsworth, funny Thor and Ghostbusters support aside, being in no way a “comedy” guy. And Tessa Thompson? Okay, they’d appeared together in the larky Thor: Ragnarok, but the combination suggested Sony were actively disinterested in attracting audiences with the promise of similar hijinks to those the series had displayed historically (besides which, Hemsworth’s non MCU vehicles have been consistently resistant to suggestions that he may be a star outside of them). Indeed, if one didn’t know better, one might have thought the studio was angling for something closer to The X-Files itself than the goofy tone the series was known for.

Which, it turns out, little wacky aliens designs aside, it pretty much was. Possibly even more so prior to the version that made it to cinemas. Such was my disinterest in Men in Black: International, it entirely passed me by that the production had been so stormy (I mean, when you have the kind of reshoots Dark Phoenix suffered to divert your attention, everything else palls by comparison). It seems Men in Black: International was your classically rushed production, with a first draft screenplay that required significant rewriting, often at the behest of series producer Walter F Parkes and to the objection of Gray, who suffered the ill effects of Parkes’ interference when Sony VP David Beaubaire left the studio.

The “edgier and more timely” screenplay dealing with immigration was softened, it seems (but in fairness, producer Parkes was historically no slouch in the writing department, with WarGames and Sneakers to his name; certainly, I’d more readily listen to his ideas than credited writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum. Perhaps the handling of topical material was, like so much Hollywood produces, heavy-handed and glib). Of course, Parkes and co-producer Laurie MacDonald naturally had a less incendiary take on the Hollywood Reporter’s story. Whatever the details, there were sufficient ructions that Sony ended up with two cuts of the movie, a Gray one and a Parkes one, with the latter’s picked for release.

Men in Black: International is quite serviceable, particular during the first hour, but with Gray helming, it sands no chance of taking off visually or exhibiting any degree of real verve (and the big action set piece on a hover bike is as unnecessary and lethargic as one might expect). Hemsworth is fully trading on his Thor persona, channelling the faux-Shakespearean tones of the Norse god into a reasonably funny faux-posh English caricature. That said, his character, cocky and over-confident and careless, is crippled by an all-important thread whereby he isn’t the guy he used to be (“He’s changed. I can feel it”) and so can’t be trusted. Except that it’s never clear, aside from having had his memory of a crucial incident wiped, just why this should be the case. It means we never get a sense of who H is supposed to be (the question remains, though, why not convert H as well as Liam Neeson’s High T, given there was evidently the opportunity).

Thompson’s Molly/M is likeable but blandly unmemorable. The most noteworthy aspect of her involvement is questioning the operation’s gender-biased name, and that was in the trailer. Much of the plot revolves around the prospect of a mole in MIB, working for aliens the Hive, and this element sustains itself quite effectively, even given there are only two options, Rafe Spall’s Agent C, who is so obnoxious it can’t be him, and respectable veteran High T. So there you go. Emma Thompson is back as Agent O, Rebecca Ferguson plays a three-armed alien like she’s auditioning for AbFab, and Kumail Najiani, recently on the steroids, voices tiny alien sidekick Pawny.

Maybe I had very low expectations, but Men in Black: International’s no worse than many of the middling studio movies that came out last year. It confirms what we knew anyway – Men in Black 3 bucked the feeling that the franchise was one-and-done redundant, but only due to the time travel element – but perhaps it’s just as well to have it underlined that all those now nostalgia-ripe 90s SF properties (The X-Files, Independence Day, Men in Black) have little latter-day lustre. And certainly not when their original architects are still attached.


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