Early in Men in Black: International, two agents riff on how the alien-monitoring organization is still called Men in Black even though there are, you know, women in it. Later, another character calls them “the Men and Women in Black.” They’re belabored, groan-worthy moments, not because gender parity isn’t important (it is, very much so) but because the gag is old and, frankly, binary.
Excess is the north star by which Men in Black: International, directed by F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious), operates. More aliens, more jokes, more guns, more locations, and more special effects get heaped on as Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth attempt to save the world.
The glow-up (or blow-up, really) from the relative simplicity of the 1997 original makes sense not only because “more” is a mandate of all blockbusters these days, but because it’s the impulse anyone like Molly (Thompson) would have. Men in Black: International is a science-fiction comedy, of course, but it’s also a wish fulfillment movie for anyone who saw the original Men in Black in adolescence and wished they could join the secret agency, too.
As a child, Molly finds an alien in her room, and witnesses her parents having their memories wiped by Men in Black agents. Having escaped a memory wipe, herself, Molly spends the next 20 years searching for the truth — about aliens, about the Men in Black, and about the world as a whole. When she finds it, her ensuing MIB-makeover is the stuff of dreams. The tailored suit, cool gadgets, access to extraterrestrial intel and whole other worlds; it’s the sci-fi version of Harry Potter being welcomed to Hogwarts.
Unlike Harry Potter, that sense of wonder involved isn’t generated by an original story but nostalgia for a better movie. It’s both a curse and a blessing that, as soon as Danny Elfman’s Men in Black theme music kicks in, the sequel/spin-off earns a considerable amount of goodwill — it doesn’t have to work as hard to hit its marks. But the loosey goosey structure of the film takes its toll sooner rather than later.
As the rookie and the famous veteran, respectively, Thompson and Hemsworth aren’t lacking for charm or charisma (see: Thor: Ragnarok), but they have precious little to work with. To wit: A key aspect of Hemsworth’s agent, H, is that he’s changed ever since saving the world a few years ago. But we don’t know what he was like before, and none of the characters — who keep telling him he’s different now — deign to clarify that point, either.
The best thing that can be said for International is that it will be a perfect airplane movie. Whatever black magic was at work that made 2012’s Men in Black 3 so great (the supernova charm of Will Smith, a genuinely emotionally affecting story, more practical effects) is mostly gone from the soft reboot. The film is constantly throwing things in your face, but none of them really stick.
Similarly, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), who plays the requisite cute sidekick alien, and Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible - Fallout), as a well-armed arms dealer, fail to make much of an impact because they’re really set dressing. Rafe Spall, who plays the bureaucratic Agent C, fares a little better, going as wacky as a wacky franchise about secret organizations and aliens should be. (Vincent D’Onofrio played a bug wearing a man! C’mon!)
The film’s action — despite being fairly relentless, as each scene introduces either a new computer-generated alien or opportunity for Hemsworth to flex his muscles — is just as pedestrian. The villains, matter-shifting aliens played by French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, allow for some cool effects work, but they get lost in the CGI soup that characterizes the final battles of so many recent superhero movies.
If there’s anything that Men in Black: International proves, it’s that the franchise has potential, but this film fails to grab that brass ring. It’s fun — I don’t want to seem unnecessarily down on a movie that is the epitome of a popcorn-muncher — it’s just likely to be in one ear and out the other, the cinematic equivalent of being neuralyzed. Some time will have passed, and you’ll feel a pleasant daze; you just won’t remember much of what came before.