The M.O. of familiarity, convention and rushing-to-get-started desperation in “Men in Black: International” is made abundantly clear from the opening credits and an opening 20 minutes that feels like a frantic car chase and collision. Beginning with the familiar chalkboard-style franchise font (set to Danny Elfman’s score, repurposed by Chris Bacon), instead of introducing anyone, it only details the production companies and the title before elevator-slam-dropping you, in media res, into a clunky and noisy prologue with Agents H (Chris Hemsworth) and T (Liam Neeson) fighting an advanced alien race called The Hive. That’s immediately followed by a 20-years-earlier flashback of a young science-obsessed girl named Molly (Mandeiya Flory) who has an encounter with the MIB without being neuralized and then you’re time-warp flash forwarded back into the present day at breakneck speed. If reading this gives you whiplash, then imagine the experience of watching “MIB: International” itself, a clunky, rushed, shapeless picture that lacks any kind of depth, substance, text, subtext or otherwise. “MIB: International” is under the false impression that audiences just want to get straight into alien ass-kicking, lasers, chases, quips, and the likes, but utterly forgets about the inner conflicts, clashes, and chemistry that made the original such a hit.
The aforementioned Molly grows up to become Agent M (Tessa Thompson), who is assigned to London with Agent H to investigate a mole inside of MIB Headquarters. That is the abridged version, for the actual version is overly convoluted and involves about a dozen plot strands that don’t mean a damn thing and globetrotting that takes them from New York to London to Marrakesh and finally to Paris. It’s one thing to see a terrible film, the kind that leaves a dreadful taste in your mouth. But it’s something else entirely to see a film so devoid of emotion and the capacity of eliciting it an audience, it inspires an existential crisis in reviewers now deeply reconsidering their career path.
Unremarkably directed by F. Gary Gray— a poor use of his career second wind after the massive successes of “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Fate of the Furious”— “MIB International” commits an even greater sin than being mind-numbingly dull: it squanders the chemistry between Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth. You know, those actors who have already established terrific comedic and character chemistry together in not one, but two other movies. The fundamental issue—outside of riffing and improv that more often than not hangs them out to dry— is that the film never bothers to get to know these characters as flesh-and-blood people. M gets a mini-arc in the beginning as she searches for the Men in Black, finds them, and gets recruited. But once that’s accomplished, there’s very little agency for her. Same with Hemsworth’s H. We’re consistently told that he hasn’t been the same since a world-saving event happened, but it’s unclear why and the supposed hurt and anguish underneath is never earned. Even more painful is the rivalry between H and Agent C (Rafe Spall), which is consistently wince-inducing. The film does get occasional jolts to life from a little CGI character named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani). While not all of his lines are gold, and in fact, some land with a thud, the alien critter is at least a welcomed release from the uninspired leads.
Like many legacy-quels that trek forward with little-to-no involvement from the original cast, “MIB International” puts a lot of stock in you caring about the overall universe and textures (The Roaches! The Noisy Cricket! Neuralizers! The Red Button!). On paper, the idea of expanding the MIB Universe to other parts of the world is an intriguing one. In execution, it plays out like another bland sci-fi action/adventure, complete with generic creature designs (Rick Baker’s influence is sorely missing), futuristic vehicles, and some really questionable green screen moments, especially the MIB London headquarters. What felt fresh and lived-in with previous entries feels clinical and visually unappealing in this latest version.
The cinematic equivalent of doing your dishes, “MIB International” wants to pass the torch to a new generation of extraterrestrial police, but without any reason to make that an appealing proposition. It’s clear that this series doesn’t know how to operate without the mismatched chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. What makes that first movie work (and the sequels tolerable) is the clear definition in their character traits and their inherent conflict. Smith is the hot-shot up-and-comer, and Jones the stoic and hardened, “I’ve seen some shit” veteran, reluctant to be a mentor. Thompson and Hemsworth needn’t repeat that same dynamic, but without a definition to their characters and relationship, the result is shockingly insipid. They’re as charismatic and appealing individuals for sure, but without chemistry together, their painful lines of dialogue are only accentuated by excessive blockbuster blandness. Maybe that was the intent, to numb the audience into thinking they enjoyed it. Whatever the case may be, “MIB International” is a failure on just about every level, and instead of 3D glasses, movie theaters should be handing out the neuralizers at the end instead to help us all forgot the cringe-worthy memory of what we just watched. [D]