Movie Review: ‘Men in Black’ makes us miss Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Men in Black: International' (Jason Fraley)

In 1997, “Men in Black” turned Lowell Cunningham’s comic book into delicious entertainment with Oscar-winning sci-fi makeup. More importantly, it delivered hilarious buddy comedy between mentor Tommy Lee Jones, who was fresh off his Oscar win for “The Fugitive” (1993), and mentee Will Smith, who was red hot after TV’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” (1990-1996), “Independence Day (1996) and his album “Big Willie Style,” featuring the song “Men in Black.”

Since then, we’ve received a pair of sequels: “Men in Black II” (2002), which was a unanimous disappointment, and “Men in Black 3” (2012), which added Josh Brolin for a juicy time travel premise in what should have marked a successful close to a beloved trilogy over 15 years.

And yet, rather than leave well enough alone, Hollywood is going back to the well with a quasi reboot in “Men in Black: International,” a fourth installment that is mindless enough to pass the time but has no real reason for existing. Why on Earth did this franchise need to continue?

The story opens with a young girl named Molly, who encounters an adorable extra-terrerstrial at her bedroom window and somehow manages to escape the MIB’s famous memory-wiping Neuralyzers. Years later, Adult Molly (Tessa Thompson) tracks down the MIB headquarters and impresses recruiter Agent O (Emma Thompson) and head honcho High T (Liam Neeson), who team her with partner Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) to thwart alien attacks by The Hive.

Hemsworth is right at home playing the hunky secret agent in black tie, his first chance to play something other than the lovable Thor. You’ll note the God of Thunder has lost weight since we last saw him as a tubby Lebowski in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), but his comedic timing and undeniable charisma haven’t changed a bit. As Smith once said, “I make this look good.”

Here, he’s teamed with Thompson again after their undeniable chemistry in “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). I’m thrilled to see Thompson’s star continue to rise after bursting on the scene in “Dear White People” (2014) and becoming a household name as Michael B. Jordan’s soul mate in “Creed” (2015). Here, she’s an appealing star that deserves far better material to work with.

There’s early potential as she questions why the agency isn’t called “Women in Black,” but Emma Thompson replies, “Don’t start, I already fought that battle,” surely a meta nod to internal studio debate. Thus, rather than freshly feminist, the film lacks the courage of its convictions as she gawks at a slow-mo Hemsworth with a textbook case of “male gaze.”

I’ll give director F. Gary Gray the benefit of the doubt that studio execs pushed the lowest-common-denominator romance. However, it does feel like Gray is simply going through he motions to collect a paycheck, rather than an edgy Oscar nominee like his N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” (2015). You’d think Gray learned his lesson in “The Fate of the Furious” (2017), which was the moment that franchise stuck around for one film too many.

Gray’s best direction comes in noirish alleys (i.e. “Blade Runner”) where shape-shifting alien twins enter pockets of darkness. Played by identical twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, the so-called Les Twins gained fame after winning J-Lo’s reality TV competition “World of Dance” in 2017. Here, they show off their alien break dancing skills in a flashy nightclub scene, but while it’s visually impressive, their characters aren’t nearly developed enough to truly fear them.

Far more interesting is Rebecca Ferguson (“The Greatest Showman”) as the sinister alien arms dealer Riza and Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”) voicing a chess piece named Pawny, who steals the show by spitting hilarious zingers and pledging his allegiance to his “queen.” If there’s even a chance you’ll enjoy the movie, it’s because of Nanjiani’s consistent comic relief.

The dialogue belongs to screenwriting duo Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, who have written everything from the stellar “Iron Man” (2008) to the panned “Transformers: The Last Knight” (2017). In “Men in Black: International,” they live up to the title with a plot bouncing from New York to London, from Italy to Morocco, dropping us in the desert just like “John Wick 3” (2019).

Still, no matter how many locations we visit, the entire journey is a rather vanilla rehashing of familiar story beats. We get the discovery of the MIB headquarters, the alien takeover of civilian bodies and the pursuit of a powerful item like Orion’s Belt. It’s all been done before, including the film’s predictable final twist and hollow villains that are way too easily defeated.

It seems like the studio is hoping seven years was enough to “Neuralyze” audience members from remembering the previous installments, but the problem is that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were so good that it’s impossible to forget them. My advice: save your money and revisit the original “Men in Black” (1997), which is airing all weekend on Comedy Central and streaming on YouTube and Amazon Prime. Some franchises should be left to die on the vine.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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