Men in Black: International
2019, PG-13, 114 min. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., June 14, 2019
Few actors are as good at playing confident idiots as Chris Hemsworth. Few actresses are also as good at playing sick-of-your-shit heroines as Tessa Thompson. Thanks to Thor: Ragnarok, we know these two actors possess delightful onscreen chemistry and can bounce their way through an action scene with the best of them. Shockingly, it takes every bit of this talent and this charisma to keep Men in Black: International from being an outright disaster.
As a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) watched her parents have their memories erased by members of the secretive Men in Black, the mysterious organization that hides the fact that aliens are everywhere. Now a brilliant young scientist, Molly dedicates her life to infiltrating their organization. Soon she finds herself face-to-face with Agent O (Emma Thompson), the head of the New York chapter, where she talks herself into a probationary task: shadow the London branch of the Men in Black under High T (Neeson) – and learn everything she can from their charismatic all-star Agent H (Hemsworth) – and she just might be granted the opportunity to become a full-time agent herself.
Men in Black: International is a peculiar kind of not-good. Tessa Thompson and Hemsworth prevent the film from ever veering too far off the rails; while neither character is written to fully take advantage of their actors’ comedic chops, the performers are simply too talented to allow the film to become an outright failure. (Meanwhile Nanjiani provides most of the big laughs as a pocket-sized alien named Pawny.) No, the problem is that this fourth entry in the franchise is almost doggedly determined to not be good. Every plot twist is observable from a mile away; every action sequence is a jumble of bright lights and middling CGI. At least Hellboy felt like a tug-of-war between a visionary director and studio; this one feels like a celebration of the middle of the road.
And what makes the film simultaneously more frustrating and more watchable is its proximity to a better, more interesting film. Consider Agent H, the second character Hemsworth has played this summer to struggle with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress. The source of this trauma could upend the entire Men in Black universe as we know it, taking a lighthearted running gag and turning it into something sadder and significantly more complex. It could also serve as a parallel for Thompson’s Agent M, who struggles with her own baggage as a result of agency protocol. There are times when Men in Black: International seems on the verge of using its clandestine alien police as an allegory for something darker, but these moments feel more like loose boards that someone forgot to nail down than subversive genius.
Perhaps future critics will be kinder to this film than us, digging out the threads of trauma and militarization and finding more laughs in the scant few jokes that Thompson and Hemsworth are allowed to crack. But history is rarely kind to films that occupy the middle of the road, and the kindest thing one could say about Men in Black: International is that it occupies very little headspace at all. We’ve all got a lot on our minds these days and could use the room.