Men in Black: International may be the new go-to example of “IP reboot that fails despite talent you otherwise like trying their best to make it memorable.” It happens every few years, and despite a few of them otherwise succeeding at being good movies in and of themselves (like Ghostbusters: Answer the Call in 2016 or Power Rangers in 2017 or Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich in 2018), the end result is always the same: forgotten down the corporate and cultural memory hole until a few years have passed and another reboot is configured from new fads to once again cash in on hopefully riper nostalgia.
Unlike those other three, however, Men in Black: International is kind of uniquely lame, wasteful of its two stars and the wonderful premise of the original Men in Black. It’s the fourth outing in a series with precisely one good entry and (now) three bad-to-terrible sequels. Situation normal.
The story introduces M (Tessa Thompson), a young woman who as a child saw the Men in Black and wasn’t “neuralized” (the term used for having your memory wiped after an encounter with the eponymous alien-hunting organization). After a life spent seeking them, she finally sneaks into their base and is quickly added to their ranks — albeit on probationary status.
Most of Thompson’s moments where she gets to play her character as a real person are good, so it’s unfortunate that they’re often mixed with sequences establishing her partner, H (Chris Hemsworth), as an unlikable sort of roguish asshole who never has the heart to balance the hormones. There’s definitely an attempt at 21 Jump Street here (coincidentally, at one point Sony was developing a crossover with that franchise), but even in those movies Channing Tatum’s jock had a heart of gold. That must be sitting on the cutting-room floor here, replaced with monologues about love that are obviously out of place.
Agent M & H are sent by High T (Liam Neeson), head of the London MIB branch, to retrieve a weapon that can help defend Earth from the Hive, a collective consciousness / cinematic fart-cloud monster straight out of 2002. Detours are taken. Sidekicks are adopted like Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), one of of the most annoying and superfluous CGI inventions since Jar Jar Binks, who was at least actively important to his story. I actually like Jar Jar and I do not like Pawny, just to give that comparison (and my general tolerance for this kind of stuff) context. Villains show up and exist, like the breakdancing and lousy Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois). Rebecca Ferguson shows up in a bad wig. Listing the talent involved, including director F. Gary Gray, only makes Men in Black: International more and more puzzling.
On paper, this should be at least moderately entertaining if forgettable. Perhaps that’s what it will be for most audiences. Fair. There are worse movies out there, but there is a much better movie that stars Thompson and Hemsworth still playing that lands its emotional beats and feels like genuine spectacle. Nothing in Men in Black: International feels new, and problematically none of it feels old in the ways on which a returning franchise can easily fall back. At the very least, the MIB organization was the cornerstone of the first trilogy, constantly serving up quirky new aliens and new characters while feeling mysterious and all-knowing. Here it’s treated as noting more than an extraterrestrial-monitoring CTU a la 24, which was constantly getting infiltrated and blown up because every employee was an incompetent buffoon. Not much better here.
Sony scored a coup casting Thompson and Hemsworth as the leads after their successful collaboration on Thor: Ragnarok in 2017, but the script here just gives them nothing with which to shine. It’s clear the two enjoy working together, and hopefully their next project brings back more of the engaged two-hander material found in their first pairing. Fellow critic Nick Rogers was quick to cast doubt on their natural chemistry, but given the utterly unnatural nature of Men in Black: International (e.g., the constant greenscreen), this feels like a writeoff for every career involved.
Within a half-decade, Sony will again reboot Men in Black with returning star Will Smith, who will take to the entertainment rags talking about how excited he is to get the series back to basics. It will probably be titled MIB. Tommy Lee Jones will cameo. References will be made obliquely to “the incident in Paris,” with one character downplaying it as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to audiences who may or may not have seen Men in Black: International but will know it’s not important. Maybe Tessa Thompson will cameo, but probably not. She’ll have better things to do. It will probably be pretty good or memorably terrible. See you then.