1 out of 4 stars
After a brilliant opening salvo, a catastrophically bad sophomore slump and a final third installment that triumphantly saved the day, it appeared that the “Men in Black” franchise ended on a truly up note and was done. But like any other major studio owning the rights to a lucrative franchise, Sony wasn’t about to walk away while still thinking they were leaving money on the table.
At one point a fourth part was written but scrapped when neither Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones nor new kid Josh Brolin would commit. It was then suggested that the franchise do a crossover/hybrid thing with “21 Jump Street” (another Sony franchise) and “MIB23” was green lit but thankfully (and mercifully) aborted before preproduction began. Longtime producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald deserve credit for saving us from certain anguish, but every last drop of that good will evaporated when they gave the go-ahead for what has become “Men in Black: International.”
Neither a sequel or a reboot, “MIB:I” is supposedly the first part of a new trilogy and ends in a manner that certainly suggests a follow-up is coming. But with this bad and uninspired, the thought of two more is a truly sad and horrific possibility. Given the lightweight competition this weekend — including “Late Night,” another movie featuring Emma Thompson, who reprises her role of Agent O here — you have to think it will pull in decent box office.
Trying without anything resembling success to duplicate the chemistry they generated in two of the “Avengers” flicks, Chris Hemsworth as H and Tessa Thompson as M are immediately saddled with portraying soul-crushingly stereotypical characters — think Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes in another completely unconnected movie also titled (really) “The Avengers” from 1998. They are both maimed right out of the gate. Hemsworth is charged with playing a rakish, slap-happy variation on James Bond (which is believable but not apropos here) while Tessa Thompson does the thankless “Girl Friday” thing cross-pollinated with the plucky, not-quite-love-interest turned mismatched-cop/buddy/partner.
In addition to Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson as High T (huh?!) is brought in to provide some old-school cred, but considering they’re on-screen for about 15 minutes combined, this is a big bait-and-switch bit of stunt casting.
There are also plenty of other familiar “MIB” comfort food visuals. A female alien — pardon, a non-binary being from another world wearing rouge, eyeliner and hoop earrings — who looks like Roger from “American Dad” in drag lusts after H, and it is admittedly funny for about 10 seconds until it turns creepy and stalker-ish.
Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”) is able to miraculously avoid a big career pothole by voicing Pawny — a lifelike chess pawn who resembles an armor-clad acorn and rushes in to defend the honor of M. He — we assume Pawny is a he — is the most interesting character in the entire film. Not faring nearly as well is another character, an intergalactic diplomat lounge lizard who could be a slimmer version of Jabba the Hutt with a name having multiple pronunciations that always rhyme with “fungus.”
A McGuffin is exchanged from one character to another in the first act, and for the remainder of the film it bounces back and forth between good and bad guys like a fetid hot potato. One such being is Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), who should not be confused with RZA, showing up in this weekend’s “The Dead Don’t Die.” She’s an arms dealer who has four arms (get it?) and a horizontal-striped hairdo/color pattern which resembles a failed Grateful Dead tie-dye T-shirt design.
Normally you would be able to pin the failure of such a high-profile, tent-pole movie on the possibly dubious filmmaker choices, but that might not be the case here. Co-writers Matt Halloway and Art Marcum penned the first — and still the best— “Avengers” movie (“Iron Man”) but also teamed to make the laughable and D.O.A. “Punisher: War Zone.” Director F. Gary Gray made “The Italian Job” and “Straight Outta Compton” yet also sold out with one of the 47 known “Fast & Furious” sequels.
It will be a future excuse and ultimately a career blemish for all involved to admit that they made “MIB:I” for a hefty paycheck. There’s no surface shame in taking a paying job to recycle something — and let’s face it, “MIB” is not a really deep concept, but one which — like a broken clock — was right just twice.
But as much as the studio would like you to believe otherwise, “MIB” is not a franchise that can be stretched out over decades; it had an extremely dated shelf life that ended in 2012. You might think you can recycle this stuff forever, but even the dimmest viewers will figure out you’re operating on autopilot.
Even the preview audience was indifferent to the movie they were only halfway watching. Like so many fireflies in a summer sky, the flicker of dozens of active cellphones was constant, as were the idle chatter and restless toddlers. If you can’t get folks to pay attention to something they’re seeing for free, you know it’s a turkey.