If there’s a studio that knows how to strategically mine valuable IP to the best advantage, clearly Sony’s tracking the most productive pulse, and there’s certainly no disputing their track record. However, determining just what product people want is equally important. Men in Black International, the fourth in a sci-fi franchise built at the mammoth strength of Barry Sonnenfeld, Will Smith, and Tommy Lee Jones, may have a hard time justifying its existence. This is the last thing most fans would have desired: a soft reboot using the original trilogy as a rough template that’s barely defined well and makes use of a needlessly complicated plot with an otherwise talented cast putting in maximum effort. And the more I think about it, the more it causes my head to ache with unbridled frustration.
It starts out and circles around London and Paris, where a secondary outpost of the otherwise NYC-based alien reform organization is based. Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) is perhaps the best operative they’ve got; youthful, brash, quick with a weapon. Basically, it’s Agent J, only with more legitimate superhero experience, but depreciated swagger. But he needs a partner to keep in line, and that’s where Molly (Tessa Thompson) is brought in, for a probationary trial period. She’s been obsessive with the alien scene, going back to her childhood in Brooklyn; one encounter with a loose orphan and she narrowly avoids being neuralized (aka mind-wiped).
Fast forward 23 years, and she’s determined to find her way into the secretive MiB. Somehow, she sneaks in; her collective knowledge keeps her from being kicked out, but any sort of quips that Smith would’ve insisted in his contract back in the day, they’re lost on us. The mere idea of going international should’ve appeared promising, on paper, and in the marketing. The grit of London, and the wondrous splendor of Morocco, now fully recovered from John Wick’s surprise visit, never looked more iconic on screen. Thompson and Hemsworth ought to be just as iconic, they’re adorable together, they’re what make the film as fun as it is. There’s an added emphasis on that “as it is”, though.
The 90s original, as I had finally discovered ahead of my preview screening, proves its staying power as a breezy all-quadrant friendly piece of outlandish comic book sci-fi only Sonnenfeld could accomplish (having Rick Baker on call to create practical monsters did not hurt). MIB: International, by comparison, is a rather watered-down, insensibly bloated rehash that will give the audience exactly what they want as far as what the prior trilogy was best known for. The issue that director F. Gary Gray, whose near-Shakespearean rap epic Straight Outta Compton remains a magnum opus contender of the decade, couldn’t fight to avoid such a fate was a painfully generic script. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (Transformers: The Last Knight) push for as little ingenuity as possible, settling in a realm where internal set pieces can’t compliment scenic locales; an extended mansion battle scene involving an old alien ally of H’s (a dangerously understated Rebecca Ferguson) carried perhaps the most expensive location shots. Where far too much exposition and character setup poison the first act while diluting the tongue for the later 2/3rds. And where nearly every supporting character is impossible to connect with.
Seriously, a summer blockbuster with the least memorable villains, that should be a red flag. Once more, that’s proven very true. Les Twins, a recent winning act from NBC’s World of Dance, are simply there to propel the film’s flatlining MacGuffin device, no more, no less; A pure waste of precious plot time. Rafe Spall and Liam Neeson fare better as figureheads of the London branch, whose loyalties are always to be questioned; they certainly evolve with time, so don’t completely count them out. And then there’s the alien equivalent to the most random talking animal sidekick from a 2000s kids movie, Pawnie (voiced rather unspectacularly by Kumail Nanjiani). In my notes, I questioned whether the character would’ve been better suited for an animated spinoff feature that will easily never happen. And thus, that logic appears more sensical than why he’s floating around to assist M and H at any capacity. Hell, Hemsworth poses a more sufficient comic relief when he’s not pandering backward to the lure of a Norse God and his famous hammer of strength. Lazy writing at its most unique, really.
There needed to be more for me to make MIB: International a winner for my time and travel expenses. It effortlessly echoes its predecessors with a healthy flair, but I could smell the thick, noxious stench of a generic reboot from half a mile away, even if it wasn’t supposed to be one. It is, and it lacks any elements as to why we could get behind the originals. Yes, Emma Thompson (whom you should make time to see this weekend in Late Night) and Frank the Pug (Tim Blaney) return in brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parts, but that wasn’t enough to convince me otherwise. We, therefore, must rely on Thor and Valkyrie to save the day, and the film. For what it’s worth, they barely manage to complete the mission with a few flying colors. But the end of the day, I could feel that looming neuralizer of Damocles working its magic all through the nearly two hours spent. Like many of a disappointing summer sequel, you won’t remember much of events transpired after it’s over. What else is new, really? (2.5/5 Horns Up)/(C-)
Men in Black: International opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some language, and suggestive material; 114 minutes.