When a once profitable film franchise begins to fade, the studios that have reaped the benefits of same are left with little choice about how to handle it. With so much money at stake, both in ticket sales and ancillary merchandise on the line, they can’t just let it slip away with dignity. No, they have to wring the last pfennig, farthing, and penny from it, churning out sequels and retreads until the returns cease. In a kind universe, it happens quickly. In an unkind one, we get MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL.
INTERNATIONAL is both a sequel (albeit indirect) and a retread. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have moved on, acknowledged here only in a painting hanging in MIB London’s HQ, but the story is a sideways revisit of the first film in the series, in which we find neophyte M (Tessa Thompson) and seasoned agent H (Chris Hemsworth) saving the planet from the scum of the universe. In all fairness, the first 15 minutes or so are terrific, when the child Molly somehow eludes the memory-wiping neuralizer that make her parents forget their close encounter with what seems to be an electric blue muppet. The event sends her on a quest to join the mysterious men in black suits who visited their home that fateful night. A quest that ends in a dead-end job in tech support, and a hacked account that gives her access to the Hubble telescope. In due course, she has wormed her way into MIB’s New York HQ, and convinced its director, O (Emma Thompson), that she is MIB material. Probationary.
The tongue-in-cheek fun of the original is in full evidence during this halcyon interlude in an otherwise joyless film. Thompson’s droll take on irony is a tonic, and the high point of the proceedings, as O sends M off on her first assignment. That would be in London, where things are, per O, not quite right. Once M boards the subway/hyperdriven shuttle from NYC to Britain, all that was good and right disappears as we are confronted with a film that is essentially going through its moribund paces, telling a story we’ve seen before and done much better then.
No fault of Thompson, who is gritty rather than spunky. Echoed in a wardrobe choice. Sure, she wears the regulation high heels with her MIB attire, but they’re chunky, rather than stilletto. She also has childlike delight peeping through the grit as she finally gets her hands on all those wonderful toys she saw so long ago, and more. In a fit of ambition, she fakes her way into an assignment with H (Hemsworth), less than regulation agent (he wears brightly colored socks) who once saved the world with High T (Liam Neeson), London’s director, who has since kept H under his protection when the unorthodoxness gets messy. Unfortunately, the assignment is to keep visiting, hard-partying alien royalty out of trouble, and things go horribly awry, leaving the M and H on the run with a mysterious polygon, a snarky chess piece (Kumail Nanjiani) and the MIB on their trail.
What once seemed so fresh and fun has grown stale with overuse. Once again there are an abundance of aliens among us. The talking beard, the sentient chess pieces, the interstellar twins who can liquefy solids and then solidify the liquid, they just don’t have the same zing now that they’ve become de rigeur rather than a delight. H’s romantic interlude with an alien is less funny than creepy, with a dash of the obvious thrown in to make it even less entertaining.
Following the newbie as a way of introducing the audience to the inner workings of MIB is a narrative ploy that works once. When none of us knew about those workings. Dredging it up again highlights the lack of originality at work. As does a creaky plot whose twists are little, if any, surprise. The most arresting thing after O’s psychological parsing of why it’s still the MEN in black is the striped wig sported by Rebecca Ferguson as the alien arms dealer given to caftans and heavy eyeliner. And then only because you’d think with this kind of FX budget, they could get the striped straight.
While Hemsworth’s grin sparkles, and Rafe Spall does a fine supercilious simmer as H’s office rival, Neeson seems as bored to be taking part in this piffle as we are in watching it. Sluggish in pace, uninspired in execution, MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL has sucked the life out of the franchise rather than breathed new life into it. Where’s that neuralizer when we need it?