Review: MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Familiar and just plain fine, this “MIB” reboot receives a passing grade.

Let’s face it, most classic science fiction is sexist, if not outright misogynist. And Hollywood, more or less, knows it. With the coming Denis Villeneuve adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” it will be interesting to see how the women characters are handled. Herbert’s novel ends with a provocative moment in which the hero, Paul Muad’Dib, explains flatly that he will retain his concubine, who gave birth to his late child, and take a princess in a loveless, sexless marriage. It’s not surprising that Villeneuve was announced to helm the pilot of the “Dune: The Sisterhood.”

In most of Herbert’s landmark novel, women are largely subjugated and abused, even the ones with the voice and other magical talents. Such is the stuff that serves as the building blocks of classic hard and fantastical science fiction. God forbid that Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” ever gets a blockbuster makeover.

Tessa Thompson steals the show as the brainy Agent M.

So, into this #metoo era, strides a summer tentpole bearing the “Men in Black” brand, which is another adaptation of the Malibu/Aircel Comics material. Those comics owe a debt to the decades of science fiction that came before, and trade on our built-in fascination with little green men. The “MIB” films previous to this latest installment have comically dealt with the male dominated agency by colorfully winking as the female characters shrug it off sarcastically. The irony is that the villains in the “MIB” universe tend to be women, or aliens in female form, and “International” is no different. But this time, the movie’s central protagonist, Agent M, is played by Tessa Thompson, who dons the agency issued attire and plays straight-man to Chris Hemsworth’s irresistibly sexy Agent H.

And to “International’s” credit, Hemsworth’s chiseled physique is ogled in an impossibly sexist fashion, thereby attempting to provide some small measure of gender parity. It’s all played for jokes, while Agent M employs her significant brain power to save the day. As a star vehicle for Thompson, you can’t get much better than this. Valkyrie standalone feature anyone?

Liam Neeson as High T imparts some learned advice to Agent M.

The story here is set in the “MIB” universe, of which viewers should already be acquainted. However, I was surprised learn when I took my 15-year-old daughter to the press screening that she had never seen any of the prior films. The original “MIB” was released in 1997, so, it is likely that a large number of potential viewers fall into my daughter’s category. Thankfully, this new film can be watched, and enjoyed without seeing the prior movies. It will help, though, to have, at least, a passing understanding of how things are set up.

The Men in Black are a secret organization that keeps the balance between the alien universe and Earth. Agent H is a star employee having saved Earth from an invading horde known as the Hive back in 2016. His partner at the time was High T (Liam Neeson), and their victory is heralded by the agency. While the previous “MIB” installments were concerned with the agency in the United States, Agent H and High T are members of the London office. High T is the director.

Hemsworth and Thompson make a good team.

After searching for the Men in Black since she was a child, Agent M finally manages to infiltrate her way into the US agency, and leader Agent O (Emma Thompson) decides to give M a shot as a probationary agent. This leads M to London, where she becomes H’s partner. M’s training is kept pretty loose, so she has to learn how to be an agent on the job. Naturally, her indoctrination into the alien/human world is comical.

The diminutive Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjuani) is a good sidekick.

One of the joys of the “MIB” films is how nonchalantly the alien creatures are introduced. The central conceit is that there are aliens secreted among us. It’s the ones you’d least suspect that are hiding their other worldly identities. And even when the creatures are at their wildest, the agents remain calm, equipped with a ray gun and a neutralizer to take care of business. It’s the neutralizer that is their most useful tool, because one zap of that and they can erase all memory of the presence of an alien race.

“Men in Black: International” is light, family friendly-entertainment. For those viewers still reeling and wiping away tears from their “Avengers: Endgame” experience, here’s a movie with the aim to merely make you smile. It’s fun and often good-natured, as Agent M gets her MIB education and Agent H dances into her and every other woman he meets heart. The simplistic, even inane plot is irrelevant, M and H are keepers and are, hopefully, up for other adventures.

A rather weightless “MIB” sequel can’t fix the sci-fi misogynistic problem, but as long as strong actresses like Thompson are given meaningful lead roles, things are headed in the right direction.

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