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‘Men in Black International’: Passable summer distraction relies on star power

Rizki Fachriansyah
Rizki Fachriansyah

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, June 19, 2019  /  01:28 pm

In the current age of prequels, sequels, reboots, spin-offs and a combination of the four, it was only a matter of time before Sony Pictures’ Men in Black film franchise – which became dormant following the modest success of the third installment – would be exhumed and given a slick update in the superhero-dominated summer of 2019. 

As is common among new releases associated with established properties that peaked years or even decades ago, the Men in Black franchise’s latest attempt at rejuvenation lacks a clear sense of purpose. 

Titled Men in Black International, the franchise’s comeback in an entirely new blockbuster playing field often feels groggy, constantly switching tactics between old-fashioned buddy-comedy sensibilities and contemporary polish, before reducing itself to little more than an uncompromising display of star power, courtesy of its naturally charismatic leads. 

Men in Black International follows newly-minted person-in-black Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and her seasoned partner, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), as they embark on a globe-trotting journey to uncover the truth behind the brutal killing of a prominent intergalactic figure.

Meanwhile, High T (Liam Neeson) – Men in Black London branch’s supervising honcho – deals with the troubling possibility of a spy operating within the agency.

Men in Black International is pitched as a couple of interesting hooks: what if New York City’s underground society of extraterrestrial creatures from faraway galaxies seen in the previous three films was merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg?  What if the titular extrajudicial agency is revealed to have had bases of operations worldwide, keeping the entire planet safe one alien assassination at a time? 

In its best moments, the hooks alone work. The film efficiently re-contextualizes the franchise’s (admittedly nonsensical) lore as it now exists within a larger universe, all the while re-introducing the audience to its eclectic roster of new and returning characters – both humans and humanoids. 

The obligatory intertextual callbacks to previous entries are thankfully kept at a respectable level – sufficiently quenching the thirst for Men in Black inside jokes among devoted fans, while also engaging newcomers without being excessively cutesy. 

The film requires almost no prior knowledge of its expansive universe; even the original Men in Black, agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) are only namedropped in a throwaway scene that has little to no significance to the story. This sort of narrative independence is almost striking by the current standards of Hollywood’s capitalization of nostalgia peddled by postscript sequels and unnecessary prequels, including the likes of Disney’s Star Wars and the Fantastic Beasts films. 

In its worst moments, however, the film plays like a series of loosely-interconnected narrative beats and  self-contained action vignettes that keeps the gears moving until the story’s clunky third act. 

Part of what makes Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 original Men in Black timelessly endearing is its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of everyday life in New York City. Using its central science-fiction conceit (“What if that strange-looking falafel guy next door turns out to be a shape-shifting creature from Mars?”) as a high-concept farce that pokes fun at the anxiety of living in New York City’s cultural melting pot, the first Men in Black is a refreshing piece of blockbuster filmmaking born with a discernible identity in a period when multiplexes were inundated with uniformly po-faced alien invasion thrillers. 

Helmed by veteran filmmaker F. Gary Gray, Men in Black International is listless in comparison. The prospect of broadening the scope beyond New York City may sound exciting on paper, but it effectively erases the culturally specific satire that lies at the core of the franchise. The film’s protagonists move to and from multiple countries and continents, yet this perfunctory sight-seeing provides nothing but bland geographical backdrops.

The action almost never taps into the dynamism inherent in the film’s globe-hopping antics, save for a chase through the narrow alleyways of Marrakesh in Morocco which seems influenced by the Cairo chase in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Men in Black International pays penance for its limp writing by doubling down on the superficially fun, seemingly ad-libbed interactions between marquee stars Hemsworth and Thompson. Their chemistry, which has previously taken center stage in Thor: Ragnarok, proves to be the film’s sole saving grace. 

Read also: Latest 'Men in Black' leads box office but fails to wow critics

Although the verbal exchanges between the franchise’s new protagonists are consistently filled with irresistible affectations, their performances in the film occasionally feel like leftovers from their days as Marvel superheroes. 

Hemsworth continues subverting his gruff, masculine exterior by portraying a clueless character who disguises his flaws under a charming facade. The shtick felt fresh in Thor: Ragnarok and the later Avengers films, as well as Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot in which Hemsworth plays a dim-witted secretary named Kevin. However, in Men in Black International, his routine feels rote, even borderline monotonous. Still, there’s odd fun to be had in watching this seemingly perfect male specimen awkwardly stumble and fail in his tasks. 

Thompson is similarly restrained by the material she has been provided with. That said, her character’s tough, can-do spirit adds a bit of flair and spiciness to the film’s acting department. This may sound like an unusual thing to highlight, but Thompson’s microexpressions make for a reliable source of comedy in several scenes involving extreme close-ups. 

In addition to the main Hemsworth-Thompson combo, Kumail Nanjiani’s turn as tiny alien sidekick Pawny is also note-worthy for its comic timing. Pawny is a welcome scene-stealer, except for when he takes on a larger role towards the end of the film.

Mediocre summer tentpoles have been par for the course since major Hollywood studios turned to focus group discussions to ensure that each blockbuster has been vetted to appeal to the broadest demographic. 

As run-of-the-mill escapism goes, ‘Men in Black International’ is a passable distraction. (kes)

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