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Review: A charismatic cast can't save MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

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As far as movies go right now, I’m a little tired. Maybe it’s the summer popcorn movie fatigue or the deadly one-two punch of Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International releasing in weeks of one another. But I think it’s mostly because there’s nothing more exhausting than sitting through a movie that feels like it only exists to pull money from your wallet, like watching a 2-hour long commercial.
The gist of said movie: Men in Black: International, the fourth in the series, follows Molly (Tessa Thompson), a woman who has centered much of her adult life on finding the Men in Black after she, as a child, saw agents wipe her parents memories during an alien encounter. After she lands a job with the agency and is assigned to the London bureau, the newly-minted Agent M meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who saved the world years ago and has had a hard time taking his job seriously since. Agents M and H go rogue after realizing there is a mole in their ranks, and spend the movie trying to identify and evade the mole while keeping a deadly weapon out the wrong hands.

It’s not the most complex story, but you don’t come to these things for an unrelenting saga: you come for the witty banter between the leads and the interesting world. On that front, Will Smith isn’t returning for this film, but I’d hoped that Thompson and Hemsworth’s casting could help jump start something new in this franchise. The chemistry between these two in Thor: Ragnarok was great, and Hemsworth’s gradual transition from Action Guy to Comedy Guy seemed like it could be a good fit for this movie’s tone. The casting is probably the brightest spot in the movie – Hemsworth and Thompson manage to get a few laughs, as does the excellent voice work from Kumail Nanjiani. Rebecca Ferguson of Mission: Impossible fame also shows up for a few scenes and infuses the proceedings with some great action.
Apart from casting, the thing Men in Black: International does best with its new characters is the approach it takes with Agent M. It echoes the first Men in Black, in which Agent J (Will Smith) had to decide whether knowing the truth about alien life was worth forfeiting his existence as a regular citizen. Molly/Agent M is interesting twist on that formula: a character who can’t live a normal life because of what she already knows, with her knowledge of the truth causing others to question her sanity and creating a barrier between her and the rest of society.
Unfortunately that’s about as far as the film goes in doing anything interesting at a character level. It also doesn’t do much world building, either, which is a huge disappointment, because that is what makes Men in Black so fascinating. The only real additions here are the aliens, particularly Pawny (Nanjiani), which is a cute concept and will probably do well with kids, but beyond that, it’s minimal.
Director F. Gary Gray’s (Straight Outta Compton, The Italian Job) credentials equip him well for the film’s action beats, which are mostly serviceable: Gray recently helmed The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in the series. But Men in Black: International also uses a fair amount of green screen in place of practical set pieces, and in some cases it’s hard not to notice the actors are clearly separate from their surroundings. These kinds of things could be overlooked for funny dialogue or interesting story, but here we get neither. Ultimately, the problems with Men in Black: International mostly stem from the concept and the script, which was written by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, the team behind the script of the first Iron Man. That might sound like a good credential, except that cast members have spoken at length about the on-set improvisation that made Iron Man work, implying maybe the original script didn’t.
Obviously every blockbuster ever made exists for the purpose of making a profit. But in the days of unlimited streaming content or decade-long shared universe world-building, leaning on nostalgia, without bringing anything new or creative to the table, just doesn’t cut it. Walking out of Men in Black: International, my mind was mostly focusing on what-ifs: what if they’d done this, or shown us that? Because the fourth entry in this franchise’s lineup should be able to have a little fun. Bottom line: it doesn’t feel like the creative team behind Men in Black: International have any interest in this film’s world or passion for the franchise, and that’s hard to overcome, no matter how compelling your cast is.

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