The Challenge of a 'Men in Black' Without Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones
Thursday morning, Sony released the first trailer for Men in Black: International, a combination of sequel, reboot and spinoff to one of the studio’s most popular sci-fi franchises. Other than Emma Thompson’s Agent O (Rip Torn’s replacement in Men in Black 3) it’s a whole new roster of characters, led by Agents H and M, played by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson respectively.
But can you slap a crisp suit and a shiny pair of Ray-Bans on two new actors and expect them to exude the same chemistry as original stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones? Director Barry Sonnenfeld struck gold in 1997, pairing the young Smith as the wisecracking rookie Agent J alongside Jones’ straight-faced veteran of the alien-monitoring/hunting organization. It was a perfect Odd Couple setup that carried the story even more than the CGI spectacle.
Heat Vision breakdown
Looking at Men In Black's new leads, hopes are high. After all, both Hemsworth and Thompson were both good together in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, which, like Men in Black, went heavy on a mixture of sci-fi and comedy. In that movie, Thor (Hemsworth) and Valkyrie (Thompson) were at odds with one another: Thor wanted to return to Asgard to defeat Hela (Cate Blanchett), while Valkyrie wanted to drink and wallow in self-pity. Based on the trailer for Men in Black: International, part of the dynamic of the original Men in Black will continue, with Hemsworth as a seasoned pro and Thompson as the novice.
There is sure to be some comedic conflicts in terms of their differing levels of experience, but one issue that's a departure from the original is the lack of age difference. When the original opened in July 1997, Will Smith was 28 and Tommy Lee Jones was 50. This age difference aided the plot because Jones' K was tired of hunting aliens and wanted to groom a young replacement, so that he could return to his old life.
Jones’ character was an uptight stickler for rules, always sure in his actions, whereas Smith’s character, learning so many new things at once, could merely react in the same slack-jawed way that an audience member would, had they been placed in the same situation. Both Hemsworth and Thompson are the same age, 35, which means their characters can't clash over generational differences. Time spent with the Men in Black aside, they are on a mostly level playing field when it comes to physical agility and life experience. Being around the same age, the characters will have the same pop cultural reference points, too.
The first Men in Black featured a moment where Agent K puts on some Elvis after placing his car into maximum overdrive. He’s firmly strapped in, while J, smushed against the windshield, attempts to find a way back to his seat. “You’re much too tense,” says K as J scrambled around, looking for equal footing. “You’re a young man. You need to relax, learn to take some joy in your work.” J finally points out that Elvis is dead, but K counters with “Elvis is not dead, he just went home,” implying that “The King” was an alien all along. It’s a well-crafted back and forth that underscores just how different these two characters are.
Watching the first trailer, one gets the impression that the film will rely heavily on nostalgia. In the first minute, there are major bits of fan service: 1) Danny Elfman’s instantly recognizable theme; 2) The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel Ventilation Building that leads to the MiB’s New York headquarters; and 3) A shot of the Noisy Cricket, the small gun that packed a big punch in the first film. We’re even treated to the same monologue Zed (Rip Torn) delivered to J when he first joined up: “We are a rumor, recognizable only as deja vu and dismissed just as quickly.” And remember that group of Worm guys? Yeah, the movie has them, too.
Fans may enjoy those little nods, but what is left once that rush of wistfulness has dissipated? You still need memorable characters and good chemistry between them because, at the end of the day, the Men in Black films are buddy cop comedies with aliens thrown into the mix.
That’s not to say International is shaping up to offer nothing new. The idea of Men in Black branches all over the world is something we’ve never seen before. The main draw of this sequel/reboot/spinoff is that the entire MiB mythos “is expanding,” two words used in the trailer and on the poster. We’re branching out, meeting foreign agents and aliens, all while trying to find a mole within the ranks of the organization.
The movie can make things as big as it wants, exploit as much nostalgia as it wants, but it can’t forget to hone in on its two main characters and give them a chance to bond with each other and the audience. If it can’t re-create the magic between Smith and Jones, hopefully, it can find new chemistry between Hemsworth and Thompson.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, Men in Black: International hits theaters on June 14, 2019.
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