Saturday 15 June 2019

REVIEW: Men in Black: International

It's been seven years since MIB3, and twenty-two years since the original Men in Black film, which was (very loosely) based on the Malibu comic series by Lowell Cunningham (since Malibu was absorbed into Marvel, this technically makes the MIB films Marvel movies, and wouldn't that be a crossover worth seeing? Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson could play two characters each). There's no sign of Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones, with Emma Thompson (no relation to Tessa to the best of my knowledge) as Agent O being the only actor link to the earlier films.

Tessa plays Molly Wright, who made it through an MIB encounter as a child with her memories intact, and has made it her life's work to join them. This leads to her turning down positions with the FBI and CIA, which was probably the worst thing she could do since she'll never get noticed by the recruiters that way. She tracks them down herself, and impresses O enough to get a probationary recruitment as Agent M (the designation once held by Michael Jackson in MIB2, and there are far more agents than letters in the alphabet. It must be a bureaucratic nightmare). Tessa is a joy to watch throughout, hugely confident in the early scenes before being a little more out-of-her-depth once she's on duty and slowly finds her feet.

Hemsworth is Agent H, doing his best English accent. He's the MIB's best agent, or was until he saved the world and became a cocky, arrogant louche. There's more to it, of course, but H's decline reflects the decline of the MIB, an organisation that, in both London and New York, seems to be losing its way. The two leads display the same great chemistry they showed in Thor: Ragnarok. Alongside M and H we have Agent C, played with jobsworthy excellence by Rafe Spall ("Oit noodle!"), and High T (tee hee), the head of the London office, played by Liam Neeson.

MIB:International is a different beast to the trilogy that preceded it. Although it has the same producers as the earlier films (Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald), Barry Sonnenfeld hasn't returned to direct, instead making way for movie and music video director F. Gary Gray. Scriptwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway are also new to the franchise, although they have definite form as the writers of the first Iron Man film. It has a different feel to the earlier films. While it's written and made by Americans for an American company and based on an American concept, there's a more British feel to the humour in this film. It's a grumpier, spikier version of the Men in Black - if anything, the more downcast feel fits more with the MIB animated series of the late nineties.

I've long felt a film about a British arm of the MIB would work well. I imagined more of a clash of styles between the departments, akin to the second Kingsman film, with the New York-based MIB rubbing the rather more proper Gentlemen in Black the wrong way. Here, Agent O still heads up the New York office as in MIB3, and while she's the only British character from the original trilogy, she has her doubts about the running of the London office, but there's no clash between the two. No, she serves simply to recruit the new agent and send her to London to test both her and the UK office.

However, this isn't merely a London-based film. It's actually a global concern, with the MIB globe-hopping between Italy and Morocco between returns to the office. It's an irritating facet of Hollywood that 90% of the world's high-stakes action takes place not simply in the United States but in New York City, as if aliens, gods and monsters really only want to conquer that particular conurbation. (You know what else is set in NYC and owned by Colombia/Sony? Ghostbusters. Now that's a crossover with promise, and if it's based on the 2016 version of GB, Hemsworth can have two characters in that too.)

The visuals are therefore of a different league to the earlier films. It's not merely NY cityscapes and the occasional trip to the 'burbs, but beautiful islands, desert vistas and the grubby squall of Marrakesh. Not forgetting the completely different cityscapes offered by London (seeing a brnach of Grubbs bakery in an MIB film is weird, although not quite as weird as seeing Lloyds Bank in Detective Pikachu). Plus, the film is bookended by scenes on the Eiffel Tower, providing another memorable and different image (although we all know that Eiffel wasn't an MIB, but a proto-Ghostbuster who built the tower as an ectocontainment unit. This crossover writes itself). The aliens also feel different to the previous films, or at least, the first two. The original in particular was made in a time when all aliens and monsters were grey, brown or an unappetising shade of green. They're much more colourful now (the sixties flashback aliens were pretty colourful in MIB3). There are cute monsters with blue fur, tiny green goblins in bright red armour, and the Twins (played by the French dancers Les Twins), two plasma-based aliens that dance with motion and colour even when they stand still.

MIB:International is a lot of fun. It's not exactly a complex film with an elaborate plot that's going to change the genre, but it's a rollicking adventure. The reviews have been almost uniformly awful, but I really don't see the problem with the film. When did everyone get so negative? When was just making a film that provided a fun adventure not enough?

You've got aliens, you've got action, you've got Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson walking the Earth looking beautiful. While it's not as good as the 1997 film, it holds up well against the others in the franchise and provides a fun, colourful way to spend a couple of hours, while opening doors to a broader franchise for future MIB films.

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