2019 has been a rough year for franchises. With Avengers: Endgame the notable exception (and maybe John Wick, if you count that as a franchise) less than halfway through the year we’ve seen:
- Game of Thrones limp to an ignominious end, paying off narrative arcs with all the grace of, well, a Game of Thrones “Inside the Episode.”
- Godzilla II: King of the Monsters took a kaiju-sized shit on a promising young franchise.
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix continued the one-beloved superhero series’ spiral into the sewer.
If you’re expecting anything different from Men in Black: International, a reboot of a dormant, largely-forgotten franchise…well, you haven’t been paying attention. Like the above franchises, it’s not like there couldn’t have been a great end result here. In the absence of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, why not hand the reins over to Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson? They both pack sufficient star quality, acting chops, good luck and – critically – have already demonstrated their comedic chemistry in the superlative Thor Ragnarok. When the film was first announced, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited.
But the film itself is as disappointing as its underwhelming trailers. (Not a great sign where not one trailer can manage to muster up a half-decent joke.) Neither Hemsworth nor Thompson acquit themselves particularly well, but it’s not really their fault. The fault lies with those behind the camera, as this is one of the worst-constructed Hollywood films I’ve seen in a while. Director F. Gary Gray – who proved a serviceable journeyman on Straight Outta Compton and Fate of the Furious – flounders like a first-time director, opting for an unconvincing facsimile of the first Men in Black’s grotesquely cartoonish humour…minus the humour.
You could just as easily point fingers at the screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, whose work here more closely resembles Transformers: The First Knight from their filmography than Iron Man. Clearly uncomfortable writing the broad comedy that audiences would expect from a Men in Black reboot, they instead opt for sprinkling underwhelming banter through a needlessly convoluted ‘who’s the mole’ narrative. (It reminds me of Central Intelligence, but at least that film had jokes).
Or you could blame the editor…or, upon checking the cast and crew, the editors. Three are credited here: Zene Baker, Christian Wagner and Matt Willard. God knows why they each fought for the credit, because if I’d been in the editing suite for this one I would’ve made sure my name was stricken from the record. Action scenes and conversations alike are cut together without a thought to spatial or narrative coherency. At one point, Tessa’s character (Agent M, or Molly) touches a cutesy creature that explodes into tiny versions of itself at MIB headquarters; we cut to an unrelated scene before a consequence or punchline can assert itself. Later, the passing of time is signalled by a jarring cut to a still of the full moon.
The whole thing – Emma Thompson’s brief appearance, the undercooked CGI, the plot twist blatantly telegraphed from the opening minutes – smacks of a film cobbled together in a rush. Maybe the producers could only manage to steal a few days here and there from Hemsworth and Thompson’s busy schedules, and this is the best they could do? As much as modern movie fans love to decry reshoots, this a film that needed a whole shitload of ‘em.
What puts Men in Black: International a notch below the franchises I mentioned at the start of this piece – even the execrable King of the Monsters – is that it doesn’t even seem to be striving and failing. Dark Phoenix’s mediocrity masks a decent idea and a clear, futile desperation from its director to do an iconic story justice. Godzilla II feints at big ideas about climate change and humanity’s complicity in our destruction (even if it paints them with the skill of a toddler daubing the walls with its own filth). Men in Black: International has nothing to say except ‘wouldn’t it be cool if there was another Men in Black film?’