Men in Black goes ‘International’ with slicker suits and less personality

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, lost in the desert.

Men in Black: International is probably most interesting as an example of how films have changed. It’s the same movie as the first, more or less beat for beat. But it’s got less attitude, less conflict, less ghoulishness, and no goo whatsoever. The joke of the original was Will Smith shaking up an organization of crusty old G-men. Now the joke’s on us: the crusty old G-men own the movies, and going international means no room for a personality.

If you haven’t seen the original, let me recap both. A fast-talking upstart has an encounter of the third kind and learns of an organization known as the Men In Black, the Earth’s first, last, and only line of defense against alien threats and grammatically proper acronym creation. Soon enough, the young go-getter is wearing black and working with one of the department’s most decorated agents as the assassination of a prominent extraterrestrial figure by a powerful alien puts Earth in jeopardy over a mysterious piece of jewelry.

Nods to the visual style of Sonnenfeld’s original are some of the highlights of MIB International.

And for a while, it all works. The first act follows the incorrigible Tessa Thompson on the hunt for a secretive government agency. It’s fast, it’s amusing, and that theme music remains a delight. The whole movie, really, is pleasantly zippy. It’s just that you zip around for two hours and find you haven’t gotten anywhere.

So Thompson is the new Will Smith—a fast-talking, wisecracking, deadpanning, good-looking action star with a sitcom hominess. That’s until she settles in at MIB, where we discover that Chris Hemsworth is also the new Will Smith—a fast-talking, wisecracking…well, you know. Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were playing a buddy cop movie with aliens. The new MIB is one of those post-genre global blockbuster monstrosities. They always have aliens. They just never have character.

There’s nothing funny about Thompson joining the MIB. Her character arrives predisposed to boring corporate culture and happily plays her part in an office politics of market-tested characterization. (A game to test your ‘corporate wokeness’ knowledge: after you’ve seen the first half of the movie, see if you can think ahead and fill in the second half of the character’s story arcs based only on their gender, race, and age). And there’s nothing funny about Thompson playing off Hemsworth, because half the time they’re playing the same character. The other half, the joke is that Thompson is impossibly competent and Hemsworth is inexcusably incompetent. There’s that sitcom hominess.

And hey — you can’t knock the suits.

Since this movie loses the Linda Fiorentino character, we also get a few head-scratching moments of romantic tension between the leads, which are exactly as sterile and unsexy as they must have been when the crusty old G-men first described them in some studio boardroom. The first movie took great delight in ruining every sexy, cute, or heartwarming moment with a constant onslaught of cockroaches, alien puke, and Vincent D’Onofrio. This one can’t even titillate, let alone repulse.

To cover the removal of the franchise’s horror elements, International offers exotic locales, magazine-cover fashion, and a cute CGI sidekick. Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints were all over the first movie, particularly in its gleefully PG-13-pushing ghastliness. But grotesquerie is out now. What’s the use of putting something in a movie if you can’t buy it? Nothing exotic happens at the exotic locales, nothing unfashionable contrasts all that fashion, and the cute CGI sidekick is as condescending as you’d imagine. But there are plane tickets, clothing boutiques, and action figures to go with those. Did I mention our new hero’s codenames are H and M?

Look, the Hollywood of today isn’t all Men in Black’s fault (it’s Disney’s, but never mind). The movie’s not terrible. It’s not even boring. Heck, some of the jokes are funny. But you won’t think of it again. Mediocrity is the new neuralyzer, and somewhere behind the daze of flashing lights is a crusty old G-man telling you to buy your ticket for the next one.