Men In Black: International tries ever so hard to be an awful lot of different films. It’ll make you think of a Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts outtake, it echoes mid-run James Bond films, it channels mediocre mid-90s Disney cartoons, it even invokes The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The one thing it fails to be is a Men In Black film.
Tessa Thompson is Molly, a young woman who, as a child, saw Men In Black neuralyse her parents (quite why she remembers this as an adult is a question that the film doesn’t quite remember to ask), and has spent her life to date trying to track down the organisation, which she does, finally, when an alien lands in Brooklyn. Thus she meets Agent O (Emma Thompson, who must surely be looking for a new agent by now), and is promptly recruited into the Men (yes, the irony isn’t lost; it’s hinted at, and largely handwaved off) In Black as M. She’s buddied up with H (Chris Hemsworth, who seems to want nothing more than to become the Australian Benedict Cumberbatch) under the supervision of High T (Liam Neeson and just a hint of botox).
H&M are sent off to look after Vungus, a visiting member of the Jerbabian royal family, who promptly gets killed, but only handing over a superweapon to M. M and H then go off on a bangy, shooty, crashy chase around the Mediterranean trying to track it back down.
And in doing so, MiB:I drifts further and further away from what made the 1997 film so engaging. Will Smith’s wide-eyed innocent amazement, alongside Tommy Lee Jones’ 80-grit gruffness, is missing; Tessa Thompson is, we’ve seen, capable of much better than the “kick-ass girl by the numbers” thin gruel she’s given here, her rise from camp follower to probationer to — no, this isn’t a spoiler; it’s entirely obvious — fully-fledged Person In Black quite predictable and unremarkable.
The film also forgets what Men In Black are supposed to be — invisible. The Black suits, reduced to little more than a brand in this new and entirely unnecessary outing, were meant to be a camouflage, the Men who wore them disappearing into the background. How black lounge suits are supposed to blend into, then, a Marrakshi souk is unclear. Not that it matters; by the time H 007s up to a supervillain’s island lair off the coast of Naples, he’s in a pair of pale pink trousers and a very smart, but decidedly not black, sky-blue shirt. Perhaps “People In Various Colours” wasn’t quite as snappy a title…
Hemsworth and Thompson’s characters are underwritten, but at least they serve a point in the plot. M is given an entirely unnecessary comic cartoon sidekick in the form of Pawny, voiced by Kamail Nanjaini, a six-inch-high alien who pledges his loyalty to M because, presumably, there is absolutely no other reason for him to be in the film. Actually, that’s not entirely fair — there might have been a point, but by the time it was apparent that he was a significant character, I’d given up trying to keep up with the plot, which tries far too hard to be far too clever and manages to make little more than the slightest modicum of sense. There is, at its heart, a thread about a mole somewhere in the MiB organisation, but from the moment it’s floated, where this idea is going is so painfully obvious that you’ll be offended by the suggestion that this is supposed to be in any way suspenseful.
What’s most surprising, then, is that there are flashes of interestingness that remind you of the talent involved, and wasted, in People In Various Colours. Thompson and Hemsworth are both talented actors who are given so very little to stretch their talents — Thompson’s M in particular seems largely unimpressed by what the Men In Black machine is capable of, cutting the legs out from under what made Smith’s character in the original film such an effect audience surrogate. But the other Thompson, Emma, is — not matter how rubbish the film she finds herself in may be — singularly incapable of anything short of outstanding acting. She’s clearly the Maggie Smith, the Judi Dench, of her generation, possibly even a finer acting talent than either of those women, and even in MiB:I she manages to find an imperious archness for O that the director, the implausibly-named F. Gary Gray, must surely have been endlessly grateful for. What’s going on with her career remains to be established — for every The Children Act or, by all accounts, the upcoming Late Night, she’s wasting her time on nonsense like this, or Johnny English Yawns Again, and clearly has some massive gambling debts that we’re not aware of. Rafe Spall is excellent as C, a perfectly snarky foil for the entirely cooler H. Also criminally underused is Rebecca Ferguson as arch-villain and Zaphod Beeblebrox wannabe Riza, who really, really should have had a scene with Emma Thompson just to see who could be the most acid (betting update: 6-1 Ferguson, Thompson 5-1 on, favourite, 50-1 bar).
Unlike Aladdin, in which the presence of Will Smith was a disappointment and which left us longing for an original with no Smith, Men In Black: International lacks Smith, but misses him horribly. It’s really not a very good film — you’ll come out of the cinema wishing someone would neuralyse you.