Men in Black: International is indebted to the blockbuster franchise that started in 1997 in many ways. For example, over the course of the film, the main characters often wear black suits and sunglasses, and sometimes they encounter aliens. Beyond that, though, it would be nearly impossible to watch this movie and recall what was so good about the original Men in Black. The basic ingredients are there—odd-couple stars, big special effects, and a decent blend of comedy and action. But this sequel-slash-spinoff comes across as a lifeless piece of content, bearing a brand name and a glossy look but little else to remember it by.
In that regard, it’s a typical addition to the Men in Black universe, which has stretched on for more than 20 years without making much of a case for its continued existence. The first film, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, is an unimpeachable classic. But it succeeded because of how understated it was, thriving on the chemistry of its leads and their biting one-liners; the movie barely has an action sequence outside of a shouting match between Smith and a giant cockroach. But the two sequels starring Smith and Jones failed to recapture the magic, and so the concept of nattily dressed alien policemen went dormant until now, revived with an all-new duo: Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson.
Their partnership has been ported over from a different franchise film that was actually fun and charming—Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. On the surface, their dynamic here has a similar energy, with Hemsworth playing the effortlessly handsome ne’er-do-well and Thompson playing more of a sarcastic, cool-eyed realist. But that pairing has been grafted onto an airless setting (the London branch of the MiB, a secret agency that polices alien activity on Earth) and a hopelessly convoluted plot, which adds up to 114 minutes of nothing in particular.
Much as in the original Men in Black, the film’s main character, Agent M (Thompson), is a new initiate to the special agency, given her first suit and pair of sunglasses after she figures out its secrets and sneaks her way into the headquarters. Impressed, Agent O (Emma Thompson, the film’s one human holdover from the original trilogy) ships her off to MiB’s London branch, where M is put under the wing of the hotshot Agent H (Hemsworth), who is locally renowned for both his looks and his ability to fight off hostile invaders.
Perhaps befitting the European setting, Hemsworth has more of a James Bond vibe than Men in Black’s prior agents. He takes down a corrupt poker game in one barnstorming action sequence early on, beds an alien femme fatale, and at one point trades in his iconic threads for a lilac shirt and pink trousers. It all goes against the idea that the Men in Black must remain anonymous, serving as irrelevant-looking functionaries who busy themselves in the background, erasing civilians’ memories of anything weird they might encounter. The film is filled with loud and useless laser shoot-outs and car chases that take place in the streets of London, Paris, Marrakesh, and anywhere else the globe-trotting agents wind up.
This approach is worlds away from the original film, which had a distinct New York feel and was led by the grizzled Agent K (Jones), who at one point lectured Agent J (Smith) about discharging his weapon in public. “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!” K grumbled, dismissing the high-stakes, sci-fi plotting supposedly driving the summer blockbuster he was starring in. The Men in Black exist not to soak up the spotlight, but to steer as far away from it as they can.
Men in Black: International is less blasé about the intergalactic drama Agents H and M are up against. Its story is ridiculously complex, involving a proxy alien war being fought by multiple species that include two homicidal, energy-manipulating twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois); a pint-sized fella who mimics the role of a chess pawn (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); and a three-armed weapons dealer with a zebra-striped wig named Riza (Rebecca Ferguson). There’s some intrigue around the possibility of a mole inside MiB London, which is run by the imperious High T (Liam Neeson) and the squirrelly Agent C (Rafe Spall). And there’s something fishy going on with H himself, with multiple characters remarking on how he’s changed in recent years (though Hemsworth seems his usual carefree self on-screen).
That frenetic plotting, combined with workmanlike direction from F. Gary Gray (a once-exciting filmmaker who brings as little to this film as he did to The Fate of the Furious), overwhelms whatever natural spark Hemsworth and Thompson might have had together. Where prior Men in Black entries relied entirely on their leading actors, and not on the narrative surrounding them, Men in Black: International throws as much unnecessary story detail and clanging combat as it can at the audience to distract from how fundamentally boring the whole ordeal is. If only the movie had succeeded.