On the road with the international persons of mystery

While fourth time may not exactly be a charm, F. Gary Gray’s attempt at resurrecting the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones alien espionage franchise goes a long way, in large part thanks to the natural charm of its leading duo

Men in Black: International
Men in Black: International

Saying that veteran journeyman director F. Gary Gray had ‘big shoes to fill’ when he was placed at the helm of the long-gestating fourth installment of the Men in Black franchise would not exactly be all that accurate a statement. While the 1997 debut installment was certainly a bona fide phenomenon, its sequels never quite managed to recapture the attention-grabbing, zany momentum of the first mission undergone by Agent K (the sandpaper-dry Tommy Lee Jones) and his new recruit Agent J (a characteristically indefatigable Will Smith); even if third time did prove to be something of a charm, with the time-hopping Men in Black 3 (2012), delivering some well-executed and likeable aliens-and-espionage joy.

But perhaps appropriately given its subject matter and despite its successful run at the box office and the critics’ press, MIB: III also felt like the relic of another (albeit still relatively recent) time: a pop culture environment where Will Smith would be expected to release an accompanying hit single for the MTV circuit, and where such genre blockbusters would not have been eclipsed in both reach and relevance by the superhero behemoth in tone, scope and humourous beats (MIB actually finds something of a spiritual predecessor in The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise).

So it’s hardly surprising that Gray – a largely style-less though undeniably versatile director with credits like The Negotiator (1999), Straight Outta Compton (2015) and the Fate of the Furious (2017) to his name – took the same devil-may-care approach that gave MIB III its edge while also tapping into the talent pool of the superhero cinematic universe to deliver Men in Black: International.

Reuniting former Thor: Ragnarok (2017) cast members Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, Men in Black: International casts Liam Neeson as the ostensible replacement for the strait-laced leader role of Tommy Lee Jones, slotting him in as the appropriately-named ‘High T’, the leader of MIB’s UK branch whose predilection for Agent H (Hemsworth) begins to flag as the maverick spy’s methods grow sloppier by the minute – a fact noticed with worry and perhaps just a little bit of glee by his erstwhile competitor within the bureau, the strait-laced Agent C (Rafe Spall). But H’s days are given back some zing when he finds himself saddled with a new partner – the Men In Black-curious Molly Wright (Thompson), a civilian who breaks into the bureau after a behind-the-curtains encounter with the Men in Black leaves her with an obsessive streak about everything they do. Reluctantly inducted into the MIB on a probationary basis by Agent O (Emma Thompson), Molly becomes Agent M and teams up with H on what initially appears to be a fairly standard bit of information gathering. But their nightclub encounter with alien royalty Vungus the Ugly (Kayvan Novak) quickly turns into a universe-saving affair, as conspiracy upon conspiracy unravels, pinballing our freshly-minted duo across alien-infiltrated hotspots across the globe.

Marred by production troubles which certainly account for its equally pinballing shifts in tone and plot tempo, Men In Black International is about as good as you’d expect a reheated franchise entry to be, but not all that much better. In other words, it’s a serviceable romp with occasionally good jokes and some decent special effects, but it fails to live up to its hard efforts at charming the pans out of its audience. The net result is that it grates in comparison to its bigger mainstream forebears, not least because you literally have Thor (Hemsworth) and Valkyrie (Thompson) headlining the affair (and of course, there is a hammer gag wedged in). That said, Hemsworth and Thompson’s chemistry is the best thing about it – self-deprecating enough to get away with a lot, and refreshingly shorn of any retrograde romantic overtones.

Neither is it the case that the story isn’t packed with potential, nor that its supporting players aren’t inspiringly sketched, or that their actors don’t have enough game. Mission Impossible veteran Rebecca Ferguson camps it up as a ludicrously-wigged space gangster, and the pocket-sized worrywort alien Pawny, voiced by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and strung along on the trip with our heroes, offers inspiring moments of levity and deflation throughout.

It’s just that franchise magic needs a concerted team effort – nay, a symphonic one – to truly shine. Otherwise, all that’s left is a fun piece of pulp that feels like a muddled trudge for too long a chunk of its running time.

The verdict

With a pair of inspired leads and a well-imagined conspiracy storyline and charming supporting characters, this should have been an easy winner. Alas, behind-the-scenes drama must surely have contributed to churning out an end result that’s marked more by shoddy pacing and try-hard attempts at constant humour.