By Darren Franich
June 12, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Giles Keyte/Sony
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In Men in Black: International, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth play humans who fire guns at aliens. And the aliens are not stopped by those guns, so the humans have to fire bigger guns. This happens in London, Paris, the Bay of Naples, and Morocco. Back in 1997’s Men in Black, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones hit the pavement investigating New York crime, hassling a shady pawn shop guy, swinging by the morgue, chasing some exterminator out to Flushing Meadows. In this terrible reboot, there’s no local flavor, or any flavor. Thompson’s Agent M gets on an NYC subway car — and the familiar dingy cabin transforms into a luxury lounge with comfy seating. It’s a special VIP-only MTA, reserved for travelers on all-expense business trips. The subway never looked so clean, the subway never looked so expensive, the subway never looked so boring.

International is better than Men in Black II and worse than Men in Black III, and they’re all bad, so erase this sentence from your memory. This fourquel’s a special bummer, because Thompson and Hemsworth shined together in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. Hemsworth reimagined his epic hero as a cheerful doofball with a busted hammer, letting Thompson dominate as a charisma firebomb on a millennia-deep bender. A good idea to reunite them, and that’s it for International‘s good ideas.

Agent M starts off as Molly, a brilliant obsessive who believes in science and therefore disdains love. She has spent 20 years hunting the Men in Black, the shadowy governmental organization that manages Earth’s extraterrestrial population. She sneaks into MiB’s New York HQ wearing a black suit and tie: An act of cosplay, and Thompson’s performance models the wide-eyed fandom International clearly expects from viewers.

Molly’s persistent, even desperate. She pitches herself hard for an MiB gig: “I’m smart. I’m motivated. I look good in black.” Local boss O (Emma Thompson) hires her on a provisional basis, demanding that Molly “conform to the identity we give you.” The rechristened M goes to London, at which point O pretty much disappears. I’m no geographer, but surely one should see more of Emma Thompson in London, not less?

Now, it seems a profound waste of Tessa Thompson to cast her as the square. And she doesn’t even get to play nerdly diligence for very long. This is a generic extravaganza, conforming every character to the identity required by bland blockbuster effects. In no time, this brainiac’s wrestling aliens and free soloing up a rocky cliff. There’s an early montage where M goes through the MiB artillery, and when she finds a cool gun, she actually says “Check, please!”

Check, please! Who still writes crud like that? Screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, I guess: Sorry, fellas, the people must be told. And one of Chris Hemsworth’s first lines is “Let’s do this!” We’re filling up our Cliché Bingo card now, if only someone yells Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Hemsworth plays Agent H, a swaggering British hothead with great stories about partying with cosmic tyrants. London boss High T (dozing Liam Neeson) thinks H is one of the agency’s finest. Conversely, rival agent C (Rafe Spall) dislikes H’s lone-wolf tactics. And the one interesting thing about International is the possibility that H might secretly be terrible, a smirk in a suit failing upwards.

Some potential here: The outsider hustling for two decades to get her foot in the door, and the best boy with a highbrow accent asleep at his desk. You remember how, in the original Men in Black, Smith’s Agent J competed for an MiB slot against “the best of the best,” top candidates from the Marines, the Air Force, the Army Rangers. In International, Agent M is the best of the best, introduced hacking the Hubble telescope between job interviews at the FBI and the CIA. And on her first mission, this overqualified woman joins H for a night of hedonism diplomacy, showing some sluggy alien grandee a good time in a London nightclub. The visiting extraterrestrial flirts with her, praising her beauty, grinning at buddy boy H the whole time.

Worth pointing out, maybe, that Thompson worked through showbiz from every direction — procedurals and cable dramas, indie sensations and a Rocky reboot — while Hemsworth swam from Australia right into Star TrekThor, and the Huntsmans. No shame in any game, and Hemsworth has taken himself down some glorious notches: Marvel again at his chubby poignance in Avengers: Endgame, oddly and sweetly his most dramatic performance yet. International‘s too lame for that kind of iconoclasm. It suggests purity in H’s recklessness. Hemsworth earns some laughs, but this is the first time his comedy act looks like a schtick. And the movie strands Thompson as, like, the unfun buddy cop, learning clinically what H just kinda knows.

Director F. Gary Gray reduces his leads’ chemistry into action heroics. They’re attacked by invulnerable aliens who look precisely like the invasive space dust from Dark Phoenix. The villains are played by Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, brilliant Beyoncé-approved dancers hidden behind CGI glorbfuzz. Soon enough, M and H are chased through Morocco, and stranded in the desert, and then look there’s the Eiffel Tower. Gray films this whole globetrotting tale with little flair or feeling. A letdown, because the Straight Outta Compton director had so much fun heisting Venice in 2003’s amiable Italian Job remake. He’s on autopilot here, carrying H and M between energy-spray digital setpieces.

Oh my god, I just realized: Their names are H&M. Never underrate how much this Ray-Bans franchise is trying to sell you. The two agents meet a tiny green guy named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), who joins them on their adventures as a chatty third wheel. When the trio unveil their new car, the Lexus logo actually sparkles. The little alien moans: “That’s what I’m talking about.” It sure is, Pawny, it sure is. C

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