Nobody ever accused Sony of leaving a franchise opportunity on the table. The studio’s been rabid to put a competitive string of movies together to the point of cannibalizing its own properties, most notably with the repeated, over-eager Spider-Man and Ghostbusters reboots, and the vile over-performance of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle at the box office. So why not slap those Ray-Bans and black suits on some new assholes if Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith don’t want to do a fourth Men in Black? Heck, why not combine MIB with Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and their Jump Street films for a mutual sequel while they’re at it?
No, instead they just got a trendier handsome dope with admirable comedic chops and a sexier curvy foil to team him with: the safe, already-proven formula of Thor: Rangarok‘s Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. Series helmer Barry Sonnenfeld even got scrapped in favor of Fate of the Furious director F. Gary Gray, since he seems to know his way around delivering an just-adequate late sequel. Go ahead, Sony; throw as many variously hot, charming movie star faces and workmanlike directors as you want at the screen but—whoops!—turns out those jettisoned guys from Men in Blacks one through three were pretty darn intrinsic to the personality that made the franchise movies work.
Men in Black: International opens instantly condescendingly, providing a pair of prologues that exist solely as textbook examples of heavy-handed foreshadowing. (As if tipping the entirely predictable plot’s hand to anyone who’s seen a movie before wasn’t enough, the preamble will be mentioned at regular intervals throughout.) As a young girl, bored telephone customer service representative Molly (Thompson, bringing her second-hand Sorry to Bother You experience) had an encounter with a pair of Men in Black agents, and she’s been obsessed with finding them ever since; Agent H (Hemsworth) once heroically saved the world from an alien invasion (a boilerplate-gross, tentacled, insectoid species lazily dubbed The Hive) in Paris with his partner, T (Liam Neeson), but has since become a shadow of his former self.
When Molly bluffs her way into the MIB’s New York headquarters, she convinces series holdover O (Emma Thompson) to recruit her, and is soon sent to the London branch to investigate a possible mole within the organization. Branch head T partners Molly—now Agent M—with H, before they set off on a series of alien-mushing adventures fulfilling the bare minimum of globetrotting required of a film subtitled “International.”
As the new front-and-center MIB agents, Thompson (Tessa, that is) and Hemsworth are as likable as they’ve ever been, but so what? They aren’t given much to work with besides an embarrassingly lame flirtation between her enthusiastic newbie and his lame-brained veteran, best exemplified by a scene where they converse through a surrogate because they’re just so mad at each other. (They certainly don’t hold a memory-zapping candle to the chemistry of the over-caffeinated Smith and stone-faced Jones.) The usually reliably colorful supporting cast of aliens fails to pull much weight either; What We Do in the Shadows‘ Kayvan Novak’s three goofy aliens are easily a highlight above Rebecca Ferguson’s three-armed arms dealer (hur-hur), or Kumail Nanjiani’s insufferably unnecessary action figure-sized sidekick.
But a few solid performances certainly can’t support a flimsy story (full credit due to screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway of Transformers: The Last Knight infamy), and F. Gary Gray’s bland, lifeless direction only rarely nails that MIB rhythm and look defined by Sonnenfeld-style editing and lenses. Oh sure, International boasts trappings of the previous MIB features (Emma Thompson, Frank the talking pug, the worm guys, a handheld MacGuffin, Pablo Ferro’s posthumous titles, half a Danny Elfman score), but Sonnenfeld’s crisp, nimble comic sensibility is sorely missed. With him relegated to executive producer, Men in Black: International lacks even the faint whimsy that the previous franchise low point, Men in Black II, showed in spurts.
Instead Men in Black: International just feels perfunctory and middling, even missing that sudden, cheesy, big ol’ heart these pictures usually spring on the audience by the end. Of all people, Hemsworth should’ve been the first to sense danger when he saw the very Ghostbusters (2016)-looking portal device at the center of Men in Black: International‘s main villainous plot. Charitably, one might say that plot is a nod to episodes of the Men in Black animated series . In reality, Howard the Duck probably had more to do with it—human-on-alien intercourse and all.
Men in Black: International
Director: F. Gary Gray
Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing
Runtime: 115 minutes
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson