Many movies reflect the spirit of the period in which they were made, but not many actively contribute to shaping that period. In 1997, “Titanic” captured the big screen. In retrospect, though, “Men in Black” was just as much of a milestone in molding popular culture and the collective memory of the 1990s. Interest in aliens, fear of new technologies like the internet, and the pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones all helped make the movie, the theme song and the Ray-Ban shades emplems of the decade. The fourth picture in the series, “Men in Black: International,” manages to adapt itself to the new decade, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Even after 22 years, the original “Men in Black,” directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, retains its title as the most successful buddy comedy in cinema history. That holds for box office, the real-time response of viewers and critics, and also for how it’s stood up to the test of time. A lame sequel in 2002, and a better one in 2012, didn’t repeat the success but didn’t damage the brand, either. Now, without the director and without the two original stars, the producers have decided to recalculate the route. Cast in the two lead roles are two Marvel Studios stars, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie). And behind the camera are the director, F. Gary Gray, thanks to his box office success with “Fast and Furious 8,” and the screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, who showed their ability to generate revenues in “Transformers: The Last Knight.”
The plot begins with a girl named Molly (Thompson), who clandestinely discovers the activity of MiB, a secret agency that oversees aliens on Earth. As an adult, Molly devotes herself to trying to locate the agency’s headquarters in the hope that she will be recruited. Things work out, naturally, though perhaps too quickly, so Molly becomes M. With no waste of time she is sent to the London branch of MiB, where she becomes the junior partner of H. (Hemsworth), a decorated but problematic agent. From here the plotline winds unnecessarily in several directions. M. tries to understand what turned H., an acclaimed agent with a fine track record, into an irritating, irresponsible dunderhead. Internecine agency intrigues become disproportionate in scale as the protagonists plunge into labyrinthine organizational bureaucracy. The central axis is the need to protect an object of some sort from a threat originating in outer space. The pair embark on a series of journeys around the globe in an effort to avert total destruction.
Not a dynamic duo
Of all the changes in the new movie, the most obvious is the absence of the two stars. An attempt was made to emulate them, but they were the right comic duo at the right moment. Clearly this sets an unfairly high bar for Thompson and Hemsworth, but the inevitable fall is made all the more painful by a predictable, lackluster script. The contrast between the two new agents – he’s frivolous but talented, she’s serious and brazen – is too familiar and too artificial. When the two characters make an effort not to take risks and not to be annoying, the introduction of a dwarf alien turns out to be a lifesaver. The alien, disguised as a piece on a chessboard, vows allegiance to “Queen M.” and steals the show from the two agents in every scene they have together – which is most of them. With the voice of the comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), it provides a handful of comic moments in a movie that needs them like air to breathe.
Together with the casting of a woman to play a “man in black,” the greatest shift in the world of MiB is the world itself. The first three films were a paean to New York, a multicultural city that celebrates eccentricity, a place where even aliens can feel at home. Now the series moves to London, Paris, Marrakech and a host of exotic destinations. That’s a good choice for a series that needs refreshing, but venturing into the big world only underscores the standstill feeling. Not of the “Men in Black” label, but of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking.
The global runaround only shows how intent the filmmakers are on resembling the action movies of the 21st century, from James Bond and the “Mission: Impossible” series to Marvel and DC. The nonstop gallivanting between international locations allows the producers to show off stylish gadgets and supply a colorful background for battles studded with visual effects. The result is one more science fiction road movie, in which entire scenes evoke déjà vu for “Thor: Ragnarok,” which also starred Thompson and Hemsworth. This is apparently the tragedy of the series, which endeavors incessantly to be relevant and to that end is ready to sacrifice everything that lent it singularity.
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Sonnenfeld insisted that his films be comedies in which the action was only secondary, so he played down the battle scenes and the special effects. The bland look of the agents is meant to give them the air of civil servants: dedicated and serious but also tired and homesick. They’re ready to leap into the mouth of a murderous alien from outer space, but not with a knife between their teeth. Like outstanding bureaucrats in the Interior Ministry, they do their duty but never stop complaining. This creates the fine contrast between the heroism they display in their deeds and the distant point of view of those for whom it’s only another day in the office. They’re not cool, they’ve just seen it all, and that’s what makes them cool. Sort of a trap.
The equanimity in the face of the existential threat was at the heart of the movies’ humor and charm, but that’s no longer the situation. The new agents inserted themselves into the format of superheroes who land on the big screen every week. The same is true of the villains, who are played by the French dancing duo of Les Twins, Laurent and Larry Bourgeois. That’s a significant departure from he bug with the inferiority complex (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), which provided unforgettable moments in the first film, or Boris the Animal, played by Jemaine Clement, who was just as funny in the third picture. With poker faces, without speech and without humor, the villains in the new movie pursue M. and H. like a force of nature from space. They could be part of a Marvel picture without anyone noticing.
Because the character of the villain is sometimes an effective barometer for the whole of an action movie, the gloomy conclusion is that “Men in Black: International” is essentially a routine film. Science fiction without a flight of the imagination, shedding every trace of distinctiveness to provide solid, risk-free entertainment. This movie isn’t recommended for veteran fans, but for a new generation that’s accustomed to an assembly line of changing but identical superheroes, agents M. and H. are reasonable heroes for two cozy hours in an air-conditioned movie theater on a summer day. No more, no less.