If you’re like me and can remember the summer box-office of the mid 90s, then you know just how big of a star Will Smith was. With the release of the original Men in Black directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (a cinematographer turned director with hits like The Addams Family and Get Shorty), Smith’s star wattage was on full charge. Reigned the “King of the Summer” after the mega-success of Independence Day in 1996, Smith and the original MIB (based on the Aircel Comics publication) dethroned Steven Spielberg’s Lost World: Jurassic Park as the must-see summer movie of 1997 and was the number 2 movie at the North American box-office, behind James Cameron’s cultural phenomenon, Titanic. Needless to say, with over $250 million at the domestic box-office, audiences were enthralled by the original’s sense of offbeat humor and obscure energy and rewarded it with two sequels in 2002 and 2012. Now, as Smith reminds global moviegoers of his cross-culture appeal with Disney’s live-action re-telling of Aladdin, the question remains if a Smith-less MIB matters.
The answer: Pass the Neutralizer, please.
With the release of MIB: International, Sony moved away from an originally planned Men in Black and 21 Jump Street crossover to a more sensibly thought of spinoff. Starring Chris Hemsworth as Agent H and Tessa Thomspon as Agent M, this new MIB exists within the Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones universe, all while serving a story all of its own. Inspired by the comic sparing of stars Thomspon and Hemsworth in Marvel’s Thor Ragnarok, MIB: International is yet another attempt of a Hollywood studio prolonging the life of once-beloved franchise. With director F. Gary Gray (Fate of the Furious, Straight Outta Compton) who is not known for the oddball antics that define the MIB films, this new entry both fails and succeeds in its attempt to matter.
Tessa Thompson is a pure joy as Agent M, an incredibly resourceful and intelligent New Yorker, who as a child had an MIB and alien encounter. Not neutralized, as an adult, Agent M (Molly) yearns for nothing more than to discover the wonders of the universe. Whereas Agent M, is reserved in her vast abilities, Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H is a boyish charmer whose reckless behavior has earned him a reputation as both outlaw and legend of the MIB London Branch. Together, the two agents must discover the truth of an impending threat and the potential of an MIB mole. With the original films sci-fi sensibilities in place, MIB: International is grounded in our everyday anxieties of distrust in institutions and the potential of our leaders being compromised all while celebrating the promise immigration and the presence of women in positions of power. With all of this potential, director F. Gary Gray’s attempt to recapture the off-beat magic of the original trilogy was ultimately flat-footed.
Unnecessarily long at nearly two hours, the attempt to be hip and carefree seemed strained. Whereas the first film had the feeling of a Beetlejuice (1988) with its sense of art direction and cinematography, MIB: International is littered with action set pieces rendered lifeless, all while the best comedic moments came from a poorly computer generated pocket size alien MIB ally. Unlike the first film that won the Academy Award for Best Make-Up Effects and was heightened by a terrific Vincent D’Onofrio performance, the aliens in this film seem so empty of both purpose and visual design. In revisiting the original recently, the opening single shot sequence of a bug flying E.T.-like past the moon as a peculiar Danny Elfman score resonants is more akin to MIB source material then this new film in its entirety. The MIB pulse, even evident in the lackluster MIB 2 from 2002 is missing here.
All of this is not to suggest that F. Gary Gray is not an incredibly talented director – he is. He’s proven that with the right material, he can most definitely thrive. Perhaps, he just wasn’t the right fit for this material. In trying to rekindle the vibe from the two stars of Thor Ragnarok, that film’s director Taika Waititi would have been an ideal choice for the MIB franchise that requires spectacle, heart, soul, and comic infused antics. The source material of MIB is ultimately quirky with the sense of “quirk” missing from this film. Although Hemsworth and Thompson are appealing co-stars, and supporting cast members Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson are perfectly cast, the MIB universe they’re placed in is just plain dull and boring.
In seeing the film with my two children, I had high hopes that they would discover the unique and strange world of the MIB and leave the theatre as enthralled as I was twenty-two years ago in the summer of 1997 when Will Smith “made this look good”. However, as I looked over and saw them both sleeping during a major action set piece, I couldn’t help but want to take a matinee nap myself.
Did you see MIB: International this weekend? Do you plan on seeing it? Share your thoughts and opinions with us on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.