By Jim Slotek
Call it Meh in Black. The pun is, I will admit, unoriginal. But then so is Men in Black: International.
Indeed, Men in Black: International is a creativity vacuum, a contract obligation fulfilled, nearly two hours, part of which can be filled by debating in one’s head whether this or Hellboy was the bigger waste-of-time narcoleptic reboot in a summer movie season that is decidedly short of high points.
It’s not as if there were huge expectations. This return to the doings of the secret organization that protects the Earth from the scum of the universe is missing the annoyed-old-man/wise-cracking-younger-man combo of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith – a chemistry that was deepened with 2012’s surprisingly good Men in Black III.
Instead, we have Chris Hemsworth (yes, there is a hammer gag), as an arrogant, lazy and hedonistic British agent with a reputation as big as his ego. And we have Tessa Thompson as a goal-oriented, alien-obsessed young thing from America who may be a rookie, but she certainly isn’t putting up with any of her new partner’s entitled BS. Cue the cute bickering.
Again, I don’t expect a duck not to quack. Men in Black: International is not a movie with any sort of creative urge. It is a project, an assignment, dutifully produced according to a studio’s assessment of its dormant franchise properties and calendar, like an ad campaign.
And, like an ad campaign, the best you can hope for is cleverness.
Such hopes are quickly dashed. Apart from a parade of both ugly and cute aliens (including one of the Gizmo variety that effectively becomes a co-star) Men in Black: International doesn’t even embrace what worked in its predecessors.
To start with, there is no sense of wonder, no “Holy sh--!” moment when a protagonist realizes there’s a world behind the curtain, where black-suited agents intercept rogue extraterrestrials and keep the peace in their piece of the galaxy.
As we see early on, Molly/Agent M (Thompson) was visited as a child by a tiny cutie from someplace called Andromeda 2, and avoided the “neurolyzer” blast from two agents that erased the incident from her parents’ memory.
So, Molly has spent her life in full knowledge of MiB, looking to get selected. And she does, when she breaks into HQ and is rewarded for her ingenuity by the U.S. boss Agent O (Emma Thompson, who can also be seen this week in Late Night).
Her probation assignment: Go to London and train under Agent High T (Liam Neeson, who has probably never phoned in a role as transparently as he does here).
Her first field assignment with the heralded Agent H (Hemsworth) goes horribly wrong, when a high ranking, hard-partying alien is killed under their watch, and, with his dying breath, bequeaths to her what looks like a piece of amethyst you could buy in a souvenir store in Duluth.
The rock is, of course, an all-powerful alien thingie, capable of destroying whole solar systems.
The killers are a pair of malevolent aliens intent on obtaining said rock for The Hive, fearsome entities who control the entire Draco constellation. They are played by the dancing brothers Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), who won World of Dance with Jennifer Lopez and have toured with Beyoncé. Yes, they do get a nightclub dance scene, but beyond that bit of cheesiness, they are actually quite good, glowing-eyed stone-faced villains, who turn into evil energy when things get serious.
From there, Men in Black: International is a mess of where-do-we-go-from-here, jumping from London to Marrakesh to Paris, leaving behind carnage and picking up, as mentioned, a stray alien Jiminy Cricket along the way, a sarcastic ET, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani who adopts Agent M as his queen.
The action “beats” are off, certainly below the standards of director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious), the resolutions are perfunctory and the “twist ending” is visible from space.
Men in Black: International. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson. Opens wide, Friday, June 14.