“What is this, a sequel to The Notebook?” someone says in Men in Black: International. Not yet, but give them time; these days, it seems like every well-remembered movie from more than 10 years ago is getting rebooted, whether the market demands it or not. The sad thing is, a new adventure with the Men in Black could have been welcome (the last installment, 2012’s Men in Black 3, was a lot better than expected), even with new leads replacing Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. But the one that has resulted has little of the wit, propulsive energy or comic verve that made the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed original such a standout in the summer-megapicture stakes.
It was also a standout example of translating a comic book (by Lowell Cunningham) to the screen, years before the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and then the MCU further redefined what such movies could be. (Has it really been 22 years since the first Men in Black? Sigh…) The producing team behind Men in Black: International has even brought on some MCU veterans: Scripters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway wrote the original Iron Man, and Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, who had such sparky chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok, are reunited as the new agents taking on an overseas mission to protect our planet from the scum of the universe.
After a Paris-set prologue in which the action is set up but cut short in a manner that blatantly sets up a later plot twist, the story truly begins (more promisingly) in Brooklyn two decades ago, when a little girl named Molly witnesses her parents being “neuralyzed”—their memories wiped clean by Men in Black tracking a pesky alien. Molly grows up obsessed with tracking down and joining this mysterious organization, and as a young woman (Thompson), her smarts and her pluck get her inside the doors of its New York headquarters. There, she sufficiently impresses division head Agent O (the always welcome Emma Thompson, back from the third film yet underused here) to be recruited on a probationary basis, and Molly quickly proves she’s as qualified for this highly specialized job as any man. (This is the second film in as many weeks, after the X-Men adventure Dark Phoenix, in which a character challenges the gender-specific name of its central team.)
That does mean that Men in Black: International misses out on the original’s fun of a newbie acclimating to this literally alien world, and it doesn’t come up with enough that’s fresh to compensate. Once Molly, rechristened Agent M, is whisked to London and paired up with cocky Agent H (Hemsworth), the plot essentially becomes a James Bond variation in which our two heroes have to stop bad guys from getting their hands on a world-threatening MacGuffin, and the chase takes them from Britain to the crowded markets of Marrakech to a desert to a remote island fortress and a meeting with a ruthless arms dealer with whom one of the agents has a history. Meanwhile, officious Agent C (Rafe Spall) does his best to interfere and suck up to Blighty boss High T (Liam Neeson); there’s much discussion of how H has lost his skills and is not the agent he once was, but there’s very little on screen to back that up.
The juice of Men in Black: International was instead supposed to derive from the rapport between M and H and the comedic strangeness of the extraterrestrial players in this otherwise prosaic story. By now, though, if you’ve seen one CGI alien, it’s starting to feel like you’ve seen them all. A couple of the little supporting critters have their moments, including an irritable, hairy critter that doubles as a man’s beard, and a living chess piece that M dubs “Pawnie” (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) and takes on as a pocket-sized sidekick. Otherwise, the beings lack the tactile reality of Rick Baker’s prosthetic creations in the previous MIBs—and some of the digital environments and compositing don’t entirely convince either. Director F. Gary Gray has done well with grittier Earthbound arenas in the likes of The Italian Job and Straight Outta Compton, but on the evidence here, more fanciful, effects-driven sagas aren’t his forte.
Hemsworth and Thompson remain charming throughout and play well off each other, even as the material lets them down. Their dialogue is too often generic and forced, and while there are moments of fun scattered throughout, the situations don’t build tension and comic energy as they should. Nor do the later-coming attempts at surprise story turns work: When M has a revelation about one alien character, the filmmakers find it necessary to flash back to their previous meeting—as if the audience can’t be trusted to remember a scene they saw an hour ago—and a subplot about a mole in the agency is both underdeveloped and predictably resolved. On the way out of the preview screening, I was greeted with three posters of the leads brandishing a neuralyzer at me—an unfortunately unnecessary gesture, given that the movie was already starting to slip from my memory.