The word “deadpan” can be used to describe the tone and performance approach to the original Men in Black. In that film, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith played two very different, black-suited secret agents who took on “the scum of the universe” together, by utilizing high tech weaponry. The key to that film was in the controlled, expressionless recitation of dialogue from the leads, who amusingly sent up the remarkable special effects by not seeming to notice them. It was as if none of the amazing things they witnessed fazed them.
To a certain degree, this was the same approach Bill Murray took to playing Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. The thing about playing comedy in a deadpan manner is that, if the material isn’t funny, then the approach just makes the actors come across as stiff, robotic, and disconnected. This is especially true of Men in Black: International, in which many of the actors are doing mannered line readings but, because most of this isn’t funny, it seems less deadpan than truly dead. There are much worse summer movies currently playing but, to be unkind but direct, the fourth Men in Black gives no good reason to justify its existence.
This time, a childhood trauma survivor, lifelong conspiracy theorist, and UFO nut (played by Tessa Thompson) manages to join the Men in Black organization and is assigned an idiotic partner (played by Chris Hemsworth). Together, they stumble onto a nefarious plot that involves extraterrestrial criminals and the safety of a tiny alien who goes by the name of Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani).
Whereas Josh Brolin stepped in and truly elevated the otherwise useless Men in Black 3 with his winning performance, no one here grabs hold of this thing and truly shakes it up. Thompson is a true movie star and can be an electric presence but her role here keeps her reigned in from start to finish. Hemsworth, on the other hand, gets to have all the fun but he’s also coasting on the screenplay’s one joke: his character is dumb but good looking. It’s funny once, then not at all. This is the same weak material he was given in the reboots of Vacation and Ghostbusters as well. Someone please keep this talented but ill-used actor away from these bad redos of 20th century comedy classics! Outside of the Thor franchise, comedy has never been Hemsworth’s strong suit.
The Men in Black franchise has never known what to do with the women in its cast and this is no different. Linda Fiorentino, despite a prominent role and a big set up at the end of the first film, was written out of the series. Ditto Rosario Dawson, whose showcase role in the first sequel quickly became a footnote. Thompson gets in a few lines that offer a charge of empowerment but the role of a nerdy introvert only conceals what a vibrant performer she is. Another big problem that recurs here: These movies have never offered a good villain.
Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson are ill-used in roles that don’t require much of them. The introduction of Pawny made me wonder if this was really a children’s film after all; the character is cute but the banter provided by Nanjiani is so banal, it made me long for the similar likes of Dobby from Harry Potter.
Taking over for director Barry Sonnenfeld is F. Gary Gray, who, aside from Set It Off (still his best movie), has never been good at action sequences. Here, the laser gun shoot outs and fight scenes are hollow and resemble video game action. Initially, Gray reestablishes the glib tone of Sonnenfeld’s original, as does Danny Elfman’s score. By the time we get to Pawny, the goodwill has dissipated and the movie becomes hopeless. Tessa Thompson’s work (as restrained as it is), the visual effects, and a fairly interesting third act twist are the best this has to offer. Agent K and Agent J, you are missed.
Rated PG-13/114 min.
Photo courtesy IMDB