In 1997, only one year removed from his onscreen frontman debut in the colossal creature feature campfest Independence Day, Will Smith found himself entrenched in the genre once more with Men in Black, a comedic blockbuster again revolving around extraterrestrials, based on a comic and directed by the man behind The Addams Family with one of the two writers of Bill & Ted on board as well. With Tommy Lee Jones along for the ride as an agent & mentor for Smith within an underground organization of alien police meant to monitor the planet for any interstellar threats, Men in Black was enough of a success to warrant a sequel, one which materialized five years later and similarly achieved enough of a gross to ensure that one day our intrepid Men would return, though The Powers That Be would take five years to get all those involved to that point. Unfortunately, a drop in quality between the first & second films only grew worse with the third entry, which arrived ten years too late to see Smith travel through time, encounter a young version of Jones’ Agent K-played almost perfectly by Josh Brolin-and suffered greatly at the hands of a screenplay penned by Ethan Cohen, whom I’ll still never be able to forgive for the 2004 adaptation of Garfield.
As time continued to pass I never imagined another outing in this world would occur, even as rumors ran rampant of a crossover entry featuring the MIB & the theatrical 21 Jump Street reboot, and believed this diminishing series would one day languish in the obscurity into which it was already sinking. Yet, seven years later here we are, about to welcome a fourth adventure known as Men in Black: International with a mostly-new cast, writers, director F. Gary Gray taking the reins from Barry Sonnenfeld and Danny Elfman back to help contribute the saga’s quirky music-with this much talent behind the scenes, it stands to reason that the fourth adventure of our intrepid clandestine could, potentially, be something special.
Long story short, it most definitely is not. Quite the opposite, actually.
Men in Black: International is a near two-hour slog with one or two scant moments of semi-quality that don’t even begin to warrant a single viewing, let alone a lengthy article detailing why this is the case. Borrowing far too many elements from its 1997 ancestor, Tessa Thompson takes center stage as Agent M, someone who barely dodged an MIB memory wipe following an alien encounter as a youth and who has spent her entire life searching for the clandestine agency in the hopes she’ll one day become a member herself. Not long after sneaking into the same outwardly dingy headquarters seen in the predecessors, M quickly convinces New York City branch head Agent O (Emma Thompson) to give her a shot and shortly thereafter becomes ensconced in the bright, exciting world of the Men in Black, with her first assignment being a deployment to London & eventual partnership with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), operating under branch manager High T (Liam Neeson).
That’s all you need to know-we already saw this movie 22 years ago and little is done to differentiate it from said older, better entry in the franchise. Overall, not a single cast member appears all that interested in contributing any semblance of quality to the film, especially when it comes to Tessa Thompson and Hemsworth. Coming off electric roles in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame, I expected more from these two, who lack any chemistry they established so effortlessly in Ragnarok and armed with lethargic performances that either represent a conscious decision to phone it in or horrific direction on behalf of Gray. Hemsworth’s backstory barely gets any mention, but when compared to what’s done with Thompson it’s a decidedly good thing, as the opening scene where she first meets an alien introduces us to parents we never see or reference again, a surprising move considering Thompson’s later declaration that including her on the MIB roster would be ideal as she possesses no outside attachments or a personal life whatsoever. These sorts of continuity farts and questions only continue throughout the film-where did she learn to free solo a wall of rock? Or repair an intergalactic motorcycle? Why does her co-worker at the beginning seem to indicate he’ll play a bigger part, only to vanish completely seconds later? Why does the actor who played her father overact to the point where I honestly wanted to see him more? Why does every movie nowadays see at least one character, in this case Thompson, say the word weaponize? Why, why, WHY?
Unfortunately, Thompson and Hemsworth are just two parts of the bigger problem-Liam Neeson appears to have simply shown up one day, presumably shortly after waking up, and decided on the spot that he’d be part of a Men in Black sequel. Emma Thompson shares the same boat as Neeson, somehow making her limited screentime seem endless, while Rafe Spall as the noodly, backstabby co-worker of M & H acts just the way I described it-when it comes to these two, it’s especially disappointing, as both have churned out some outstanding performances over the past decade and should have brought more to the table. Thankfully, Kumail Nanjiani as a minuscule alien servant who comes under Tessa Thompson’s care produces a few chuckles, and a third act appearance by Rebecca Ferguson isn’t necessarily bad either, but neither is enough to demand that a ticket for Men in Black: International should be purchased immediately. Twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois are also on hand as some sort of body snatching monsters, with baffling performances and onscreen presences that bring to mind the albinos from The Matrix Reloaded mixed with Imhotep circa 1999’s The Mummy. Maybe they’re threatening to watch, maybe they’re useless. I really don’t know.
Everything else about Men in Black: International suffers greatly at the hands of the script, with a muddled plot that tries in vain to surprise but falls flat on its face in the execution. Dialogue meant to be funny barely cracks a smile, which when combined with special effects that somehow pale in comparison to those seen decades prior and the random aliens strewn about along with the wacky, offbeat gadgetry that seemed so cool in the original now looking too sleek and dull, in the process pulling off the unheard of feat that maybe Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black-esque misfire Wild Wild West wasn’t all that bad. These movies always had a secret weapon in the form of its supporting cast-the original saw Vincent D’Onofrio as a genuinely scary bad guy, with Rip Torn holding court as the boss of Smith & Lee Jones as good as any Rip Torn performance out there. Even Tony Shalhoub’s rubbery, CGI-enhanced alien role came with the earnestness only Shalhoub could deliver, and the third film saw Jemaine Clement take on the villain quite well, with a disturbingly low voice and many times when I couldn’t help but laugh. Sure, the second entry came with a dismal Lara Flynn Boyle & Johnny Knoxville as the baddies and Rosario Dawson collecting a paycheck, but it did pave the way for Emma Thompson’s debut in Men in Black 3, an infinitely better performance than what’s onscreen here.
The Men in Black saga has always, to me, seemed like a distant cousin to Ghostbusters, with the first film a decent blend of camp, passable effects and the natural charisma & chemistry shared by Smith & Lee Jones, two actors who clearly seemed to enjoy what they were doing. There exists no memorable aspects in this fourth, hopefully final go-around, unless you count an unfavorable comparison to 2015’s dud Tomorrowland that shows up twice, a sequence that blatantly rips off Raiders of the Lost Ark in the worst way, a hard-to-follow scene in a dance club and puzzling background characters that somehow manage to chew up the scenery with haircuts I couldn’t begin to describe. Going in with low expectations will still result in disappointment-with wretched performances, screenwriting and a look indistinguishable from so many other films of this era, it’s clear that our reliance on sequels to drive the box office has become a major issue and that Men in Black: International is something I’d love to forget.