Long before the Avengers traded zippy one-liners to punctuate each showdown, the high bar for cheeky mass-produced sci-fi was 1997’s “Men in Black,” mostly thanks to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. That pairing — charisma versus crank — elevated the inherent silliness surrounding them: The idea of government agents protecting and battling aliens that walk among us became the satiric backbone of a workplace comedy about saving the world. This combustible pairing juggling such ludicrous stakes was a punchline that hit hard, even in the mediocre 2002 sequel, and found its footing again in 2012 with “Men in Black 3.” The saga of Agents J and K lasted 15 years for a reason.
But these days, when the world really does seem like it’s hovering on the brink of a cartoonish apocalypse, “Men in Black” looks awfully quaint. At the same time, the idea of absurd conspiratorial forces and hidden identities has accelerated in an online era defined by both of those things. Yet “Men in Black: International,” which launches Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth into a bland variation on the same “MiB” routine, lacks the energy or ambition to make its intergalactic stakes into anything more than baffling cash grab. This misconceived attempt to inject a tired franchise with new life ends up as little more than an empty vessel.
That’s especially unfortunate for its two leads, both of whom have previously mined levity and self-awareness in a blockbuster context, and in the same movie to boot. “Thor: Ragnarok” is the vivid playground of intergalactic whimsy that “Men in Black: International” can’t even begin to emulate, as director F. Gary Gray can’t seem to rein in a dense plot too busy for its own good and overloaded with shallow humor.
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But at least Thompson gets a neat origin story. After adolescent Brooklynite Molly witnesses a cute alien speed through her home one night 20 years ago, and spies a pair of MIB agents using the old neutralizer trick to erase her parents’ memories, she makes it her mission to track them down. As an adult, Molly seems primed to score a gig with the FBI, or maybe the CIA, but when she asks about the alien division that inspired her to sign up she’s met with only baffled stares.
So far, so endearing: Thompson’s unique blend of snark and self-deprecation has been evident since “Dear White People,” and in this context, suggests she could be the natural heir to Smith’s appeal (though he’s still chugging along for now). There’s enough charm and intrigue in these opening stretches to make the case for a whole movie about Molly’s quest, but once she tracks down the MiB headquarters with remarkable ease, it’s business as usual.
Stern manager Agent O (Emma Thompson, in a brief reprisal of her role in the third film) agrees to give Molly a shot, dubs her Agent M, and sends the newbie agent off to London to work with the enigmatic Agent H (Hemsworth). A once-great agent who allegedly saved the world years ago alongside paternal senior agent High T (Liam Neeson, gritting his teeth through bland office strategy sessions). Agent H is basically Thor in a penguin suit: Cocky and deceptive, he’s been ostracized from the MiB ranks but remains in denial about how much he’s lost his way.
But when he’s paired with Agent M to track down the mysterious arrival of murderous extraterrestrials in search of an elusive intergalactic weapon…well, then “Men in Black: International” burrows into a tunnel of airless set pieces, none of which leave much of an impression. After a perilous nightclub showdown, the pair wind up in Marrakech, where their encounters include an underground mechanic who wears an alien for a beard and a monotonous flying motorcycle chase in which everyone says “Ahhh!” a lot.
Along the way, they befriend an elvish goofball named Pawny voiced by Kumail Nanjiani, who pledges his loyalty to Agent M and becomes her pocket fighter at all the right moments. Pawny’s the funniest creation in a movie that often doesn’t go far enough with its outlandish parade of bug-eyed creations, as the effects populate the story with an anonymous parade of half-baked creations. These include Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a criminal overlord with three hands who otherwise looks like Rebecca Ferguson in a glittery wig, and Rafe Spall buried in green makeup. As a blockbuster director, Gray has done better work in pure adrenaline-action mode, with “The Fate of the Furious” and “The Italian Job,” but “Men in Black: International” begs for more attention to its zanier inhabitants and the tone they serve. Instead, they dangle there, as leftover signifiers of a nineties franchise that never asked for a face-lift.
Of course, Thompson should star in as many big Hollywood movies as it takes to rejuvenate Hollywood’s star system and ensure more women anchor the biggest franchises in play, but “Men in Black” hasn’t been in play for years. The cynic’s playbook suggests that all sequels are bound to suck, but the truth is that they have to prove their worth each time out. “Men in Black 3” worked better than anyone could have predicted with an amusing time-travel plot that poked at ’60s-era fashion and counterculture. What does “Men in Black: International” have to offer?
The movie answers that question before the credits, with a throwaway gag in which the woman in the Columbia Pictures logo puts on a pair of MiB shades while keeping her torch held high. Fans of the series know that the sunglasses only go on when the neutralizer’s about to zap some poor sap’s recollection of past events. “Men in Black: International” aims to erase any memory that you’ve seen all this before, but only leaves you with the hazy sense of deja vu, and the lingering conviction that the last time was a whole lot better.
“Men in Black: International” opens nationwide on June 14, 2019.