“The world’s not going to save itself.“
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson
Men in Black was a science-fiction action comedy, made on a modest budget, which became a huge sleeper hit in 1997. Pairing Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents J and K, the newest and oldest field agents for the Men in Black, a secret organisation which polices alien activity on Earth, which is run as a neutral port for galactic refugees and travellers. The combination of Jones’ assured presence and the meteoric rising star of Smith – this was the role, coupled with 1996’s Independence Day, that catapulted him from surprisingly solid rapper and TV actor turned support player to bona fide superstar – with a sharp script and pacy, gonzo plot about a giant cockroach trying to steal the ultimate energy source produced a real standout of nineties SF cinema, and spawned two sequels of… less outstanding quality.
In 2002, Men in Black II spent a chunk of its runtime undoing the ending of the first movie for the sake of the magic pairing of Smith and Jones, and replaces the pathetically terrifying prospect of an impossibly tough and powerful insect in a rotting Vincent d’Onofrio suit with an alien disguised as an underwear model and trows in some unnecessary backstory and a bunch of poop and boob gags for good measure. It… wasn’t good.
It was to be another ten years before 2012’s Men in Black 3 added time travel and fourth-wall breaking to the mix, and threw in some more unnecessary back story as an alien supercriminal tried to pre-murder K. By this point the shine was definitely off, and as good as Smith and Jones are, they really didn’t seem to give a shit anymore.
Calls for another sequel were virtually non-existent, but the franchise had just enough juice left for another run to be considered worthwhile. With Smith and Jones unwilling, unavailable, or just because the response to MIB 3 was so disappointing, the studio opted for a soft reboot that would expand the franchise to an international stage and be called… Men in Black International.
The Soft Reboot
In 1996, Molly Wright meets an alien, and sees her parents neuralised by the MIB. Twenty years later, Agents H (Hemsworth) and High T (Neeson) face an attempted invasion by an alien force called the Hive at the gateway to (Tomorrowland) at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Three years after that, Molly (Thompson), having failed to get the FBI or the CIA to recruit her to ‘the department that deals with up there,’ finally manages to track down the MIB in New York, where Agent O (other Thompson) recruits her as a probationary agent with the designation ‘M’.
O dispatches M to MIB London – apparently one of the oldest branches of the organisation, significantly predating the previously reported founding after the World’s Fair in Queens – where she suspects that something is amiss. High T partners her with H, whose once high-flying career has hit the skids since he and T saved the world, armed only with their wits and their D-7 deatomisers. His lax attitude allows a pair of alien assassins (Bourgeois and Bourgeois) to kill Vungus the Ugly (Kayvan Novak), who passes a macguffin to M before he dies.
With jobsworth Agent C (Spall) looking to have H kicked out, and M increasingly sure that there is a mole in MIB, M and H make an unsanctioned trip to Morocco, where they find Pawny (Nanjiani), the last survivor of a chess-themed alien clan who were wiped out by the assassins, and get the macguffin – a planet-busting superweapon – jacked by the ‘Mistress of Death’ (Ferguson), an alien arms dealer named Riza whom H used to have a thing with.
They get the weapon back, thanks largely to M having saved Riza’s heavy in her initial close encounter, and T turns up to save them from the twin assassins. M realises, however, that something doesn’t add up, and deduces that the twins were not sent by the Hive, but wanted the weapon to stop them, and that H’s decline is due to having been neuralised to conceal the fact that T has been suborned by the Hive.
Cue climactic battle at the Eiffel Tower and some musings about destiny.
What’s wrong with it?
The film properly pisses on the original backstory, rewriting the historic 1961 first contact in the first movie to just one of a number of alien migrations which actually began in France in 1889, with the Eiffel Tower as an interstellar gateway predating the New York World’s Fair landing towers.
Thompson and Hemsworth are both amazingly charismatic performers, but the film rarely gives either a chance to shine.
It is reported that the film originally had a lot more to say about refugees and immigration, but whatever the process of rewrites and re-edits, the end product is basic AF.
It would have been nice to learn more about the assassins, like why they didn’t just talk to people.
The film suffers from the application of fridge logic, as there are holes in the alien plan which may result from rewrites taking the final plot away from the one hinted at by the trailer.
Most of the best gags were in the trailers. There weren’t that many of them.
The tech callbacks – the red button in the car, the increasingly wacky guns – just feel kind of gratuitous.
What’s right with it?
The film coasts a lot on the likability of the overconfident H and the highly driven M. Hemsworth is given a lot of work to do with not much material, but manages to portray both H’s competence and his flaws. Thompson manages to balance M’s skills and inexperience, although she isn’t really given space to show the wonder of the world she is encountering for the first time, leaving it feeling somewhat mundane.
I like the idea of H having been caught up in the lie that made him a hero, unable to process his own unremembered success.
Pawny is basically comic relief, but has a proper role in the film as well.
There is no romance forced into a film that doesn’t fit it.
How bad is it really?
As I find myself saying all too often, this film isn’t bad, it’s just… meh. No-one was crying out for a Men in Black soft reboot, and on the surface this movie shows why. There are no new ideas here. Tragically, you can see that there might have been, if the filmmakers as a whole had been a little braver.
Best bit (if such there is)?
In the scene where M realises that H has been neuralised, Thompson and Hemsworth get to pull out the acting chops. It’s not big, but it shows what could have been with better material.
What’s up with…?
- The MIB timeline? When was first contact anyway? Are all world’s fairs the sites of alien migrations?
Production values – So, I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, I feel like this basically just looks like 1997’s MIB, but on the other, that’s kind of an achievement, and I’m probably remembering the original looking much nicer than it did. 9
Dialogue and performances – A very, very good cast elevate a messy script. 11
Plot and execution – This film has potential, and that’s the worst of it, as a focus on the call-back elements overshadows anything new that the film might have had to say. 14
Randomness – Why are the weapons built into the car now? What’s wrong with the trunk? 6
Waste of potential – Again, on the one hand this could have been really good. On the other, MIB 3 gives it pretty much nothing to live up to. 7