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Josh Reviews Men in Black: International

I really enjoyed the first Men in Black film, made back in 1997.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.  But none of the sequels have ever lived up to the potential of this series’ wonderful premise (of a secret group of men and women whose job it is to protect the Earth from extra-terrestrials who mean us harm).  Over the last twenty-plus years, there have been various wild attempts to re-start this franchise, but none of them have ever quite worked the way they should have.  This fourth film, Men in Black: International, is no exception.

I was excited to see a new Men in Black film, and I loved the idea of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson stepping in as the series’ new leads.  The two of them had terrific comedic chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok, and I was eager to see them re-teamed.

But, unfortunately, I found little of interest in Men in Black: International.

The film is amiable enough, but for an action comedy it is really not very funny (there were like five jokes in the whole film that made me laugh), and for a sci-fi adventure it’s very small-scale and small-looking.  (Godzilla: King of the Monsters demonstrated the same near-incompetent story-telling, but at least that film was gorgeous to look at, a humongous big-budget spectacle.  I feel bad to be disrespecting the many people who I’m sure worked very hard on this movie, but Men in Black: International looks to me like it was made on the cheap.)

The story-telling in this film is stunningly amateurish, which continually cuts the movie off at the knees.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s start with how, in my opinion, the film totally fails to properly set up the story or the two leads.

We learn in the early-going that Tessa Thompson’s character Molly discovered the truth about the Men in Black as a kid, and that she has been trying to become a part of their organization ever since.  Then we see that she has a terrible job at a call center, and yet that she has somehow been able to track spacecraft in Earth’s vicinity on her work computer.  What?  How??  The film can’t be bothered to do the work to actually show us how Molly could achieve that — thus laying important pipe regarding her skills and her smarts.  Instead, she just somehow magically has this information on her computer at work.  Then, once she locates and sneaks into MIB headquarters, she’s quickly accepted as a probationary agent by Agent O (Emma Thompson), and sent on a mission to London because there is a “problem” there.  (More on this in a moment.)  This totally threw me — why is this unproven, untrained, inexperienced probationary agent sent on a complicated mole hunt in London?  Wouldn’t that be the job for one of O’s best, most experienced agents?  Why does the movie tip its hat to us that there is a problem in London?  While I’m on this subject, why is Agent O in the movie at all?  Wouldn’t the story have been simpler and more effective had it been Liam Neeson’s Agent T who first encountered Molly and allowed her to become a Man in Black?  Then, if Molly had slowly realized that there was something rotten in London station (rather than she and the audience getting this flat-out told to us at the start of the film), that would have been a wonderful surprise to Molly and the audience!

Then there is Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H.  When we first see him in flashback with Agent T in the film’s opening sequence, he seems confident and brave.  But when we meet him in present day, he’s a mess: arrogant and sloppy.  What happened to make him this way?  The movie never cares to explore that.  When, at the end of the film, we learn the truth of what happened to H during that prologue battle, we can then extrapolate how perhaps those events might have subconsciously influenced H — but the movie doesn’t explore that at all.  The movie just wants the audience to know that something changed H, but it doesn’t care to do the work to explore how or why.  This mystifies me.  Why show us Agent H being so capable in the prologue, and then suddenly so borderline incompetent, if the movie wasn’t interested in exploring the story of how and why H had fallen so low?  (As above with Molly, I wonder if the film would have been better served NOT giving us all of that info right at the beginning.  Wouldn’t the story have been stronger had we first met H the way Molly meets him, as a mess?  Then we could have slowly learned the truth about the man he once was, and what happened to him.)  Agent H is on a redemptive arc in the film, but it’s an obvious and superficial one.  We never really see H get shocked by the truth of how far he’s fallen; we never get a moment in which he truly fails, and has to take stock of his life and choices to that point.  I’d thought perhaps the death of his alien friend Vungus at the club, the event that starts the main story of the film rolling, might have been that moment, but the film doesn’t really play that.

As I noted above, the film opens with a flashback to Agents T (Liam Neeson) and H (Chris Hemsworth) saving the world in a battle atop the Eiffel Tower.  But the events we’re watching are cut-off mid-battle, thus leading the audience to immediately suspect that something suspicious happened there that the movie is withholding from us.  Since we know that Chris Hemsworth is the co-lead of the movie, despite how incompetent and untrustworthy his character appears in the scenes that follow, we know he’s not the villain.  So it’s obviously Liam Neeson’s Agent T who is the bad guy.  When this “truth” is finally revealed in the film’s third act, it’s silly, because I knew that from five minutes in.  As if this prologue wasn’t enough, Agent O (Emma Thompson) tells Molly (Tessa Thompson) that there is a “problem” in London, when she assigns Molly to go work for Agent T.  I think maybe the movie means for us to think that the “problem” is the arrogant, party-going Agent H.  But from the prologue it’s so obvious that the bad guy is in fact Agent T!  This is all so obvious that I wonder if the filmmakers meant for us to know this all along.  But if that’s the case, why treat this as a big shock moment in the third act?  Why not, instead, allow us to spend more time ing the movie actually getting into the characters of Agents T and H, understanding why T does what he does, and also understanding how T’s hidden betrayal of H has been at the root of H’s problems ever since that night?  I think this flashback scene was a huge mistake, because it showed us all the movie’s cards.  (If they felt they needed to include this flashback, rather than cutting off the events mid-battle in such a suspicious way, I think it would have been better had they continued to show us T’s cover-story version of the events.  Then we the audience wouldn’t have been suspicious.  Later in the film, when the truth came out, we’d have been more surprised to learn that the events we saw in the prologue didn’t actually happen that way, that that was just the cover story T had planted in H’s head.)

Sigh.

There are some things to enjoy in the film.  Kumail Najiani is terrific in the comedic sidekick role.  It’s a familiar role to play (very reminiscent of the role of the Brownies from Willow) but Mr. Nanjiani’s wit elevates many of the scenes he’s in.  Rebecca Ferguson is also fun to see.  She has a great fight scene (to be expected from this star of the two recent Mission: Impossible films).  Unfortunately, like most of the other great actors in this film (see: Emma Thompson, returning from Men in Black 3 in a nice bit of continuity that I appreciated), she’s wasted with almost nothing of a character to play.  She’s given a funny look in the film, but there’s no real character there.

But the things that don’t work outweigh the things that do.  The film’s score is very poor.  It plays “comedic” music over many of the film’s jokes, something that drives me up a wall.

Despite this film’s being titled Men in Black: International, it doesn’t feel very international to me.  A film with this title needed to be an epic, James Bond-type globetrotting adventure.  But although the film supposedly takes place in Paris and London and Marrakesh, it doesn’t feel more global to me than any of the previous, New York-centered MIB films.

There are so many plot holes and scenes that don’t make any sense.

* There’s a scene in which Molly walks onto an MIB subway car and is then surprised when it transforms into a futuristic super-train.  But since that train was established as only being for MIB agents, why was it ever disguised as a regular train?

* When sneaking into what’s described as an “impregnable fortress of near-certain death,” why is Agent H literally able to walk through a DOOR THAT WAS LEFT OPEN???

* The aliens that become the evil twins touch an unfortunate janitor and then become him.  Except for some reason, instead of becoming two identical versions of that guy, they become two similar-looking versions (played by real-life twins) but with different haircuts and outfits.  I guess this was so the audience could tell them apart?  But there’s no story reason for them not to be identical.

* Those killer twins then try to get the “queen” (of a race of tiny chess-piece-sized aliens) to kill Vungus for them.  But why?  They are perfectly capable of doing the job themselves, and indeed, for the rest of the movie they take all of their own actions.  So why is there that scene of them trying to hire the Queen’s people?  (There’s NO reason for it, other than to introduce Kumail Nanjiani’s “Pawney” character.)

* When we meet Vungus at the Nightclub, he’s afraid and wants to tell Agent H something.  I guess he knows someone is out to kill him, though the movie never bothers to tell us how he got that information.  Somehow he knows that there’s a mole in the Men in Black.  (Though, again, the film never bothers to tell us how or why he knows that.)  But if he KNOWS that, then why bring the planet-destroying super-weapon to Earth, of all the planets in the galaxy??  Earth is the only planet where the now-untrustworthy MIB are!!

* The evil twins somehow manage to shoot Vungus in the neck, in the nightclub, with some sort of super-alien magical bullet thing.  Why doesn’t that kill Vungus immediately?  Why does there then have to be the whole fight outside in the street, in which the twins blow up Vungus’ car?  (THAT appears to be what killed him.  Apparently the weird bullet-thingy to the neck didn’t do him any damage at all!  If that’s the case, why bother with that whole sequence in the nightclub???)

* There’s a scene in which Molly and H crash an alien flying bike out of the sky into a building in Marrakesh.  They make a big deal of how they have to quickly neuralize all the bystanders, so they’ll forget they saw them and their alien tech.  But then seconds later they zoom out and through the packed streets of Marrakesh, where literally hundreds of people see them.  But neither the characters nor the movie seems to care about any of those hundreds of people who saw that alien flying bike!!

I could go on and on. This type of narrative laziness just kills me.

I don’t hate this film.  It’s enjoyable enough if you’re willing to check your brain at the door.  I just wish the people stewarding the Men in Black franchise could figure out how to tell better, more interesting (and funnier) stories within this universe.

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