1. Men in Black: International is the logical extension of the world-building blockbuster franchise Cinematic Universe endgame cul-de-sac that we now find ourselves in. The first Men in Black was excellent—sharp, funny, new, impressively weird. It became such a huge hit that they made two bad sequels for it (one horrible, one merely dull), and enough time had passed that everyone remembered their fondness for the first film and forgot their indifference to the other two as the nostalgia set in. And nostalgia has become, in the year 2019, basically a fancy word for Brand Awareness. Thus: Presto, a new Men in Black movie, with no other reason to exist other than to remind you that you once watched a Men in Black movie and enjoyed it … a long, long time ago. There is no universe to expand, no world to build. There’s just all the stuff you recognize, assembled for you to notice and then not think about again for another 20 years.
2. The initial scenes of Men In Black: International have promise. After a perfunctory prologue featuring two modern-day Men in Black (Chris Hemsworth and Liam Neeson) fighting off aliens at the Eiffel Tower, we jump back 20 years in the past, to see a young girl seeing her parents “neuralized” by Men in Black but keeping the memory herself as she shelters a scared young alien in her room. Twenty years later, that girl has grown up into Tessa Thompson, a science nerd who’s obsessed with figuring out who the Men in Black are and how she can join them. There’s a terrific scene with Thompson and Emma Thompson as an upper-level MIB—which amusingly addresses the whole problem with the “M” in the “MIB”—and so far, so good: a modern updating of a once-beloved film, with funky and smart actors in the lead roles both showing reverence to the original while dismantling it from within. And then Emma Thompson disappears from the movie, and Hemsworth (as a cocky star agent you’ve seen a million times) and Neeson (a seemingly upright authority figure you’ve seen a million more) take over the film, and the movie turns very, very boring.
3. The fault isn’t necessarily with either actor, though neither is particularly effective; Hemsworth never figures out if his character is full of shit or not, and Neeson seems oddly vacant, like he doesn’t quite understand or care what this is all supposed to be about. But the decision to take this fascinating character played by Tessa Thompson and wedge her to a dull story about invading aliens and cute supporting characters and some sort of “conspiracy” is a disappointing one. The “Men in Black” universe, such as it is, isn’t much more than your standard space flick fare: After 20 years of movies with aliens inspired by Guillermo Del Toro and our most adventurous comic book fiction, you’re going to have to do a lot better than an alien who can impersonate a man’s thick beard to impress us. You never get a sense that the “universe” of this movie, or this franchise, is any sort of specific place with any specific characteristics. It’s just space junk.
4. That may have been the case in the first Men In Black, which is why that movie had to get by so much on the easy chemistry of its mismatched stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and the odd comic worldview of a back-then-fascinating-and-inspired Barry Sonnenfeld. (You had to be there, but there was a stretch where Sonnenfeld was like a screwy, goofball comic bard, with both the Addams Family movies, Get Shorty and the profoundly strange short-lived TV series Maximum Bob. I think Wild Wild West may have killed that guy.) But MIB: International shows more of a gift for kinetic action sequences and a fever-rush energy drive than it does for comedic timing. The movie is simply a series of average action sequences with a bunch of jokes that evaporate into smoke instantly as the movie flies idly by. Both Hemsworth and Thompson can be funny, and they can be funny together: Thor: Ragnarok proved that, and perhaps set expectations too high for their pairing here. They seem to be acting in different movies, and the movie spends so much time sprinting from place to place that it never settles down to establish anything—I’m still not sure why they become partners in the first place—and leaves them both essentially stranded. The movie has a lot of jokes, but no one bothers to make them funny.
5. This is a movie that doesn’t even have the good sense to give the great Rebecca Ferguson anything good to do as a sexpot warlord with a third arm. (I mean, there are a thousand comedic possibilities just lined up on a tee for them there. It misses all of them.) It is too busy trying to cobble together the rickety parts it needs to get this wheezing franchise back up in the air where the studio wants it to be. Thompson is game and could theoretically be a centerpiece, along with Emma Thompson, of a total re-imagining of what these movies are or could be. But you’ll forgive the impatience for even wanting them to try. It turns out, after the third attempt to recapture the magic of the first film, that the Men in Black universe is not a particularly compelling one after all. Probably time to move onto something else. They’re all tapped out here.
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writers: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.