It’s hard sometimes to make something look easy. The original Men in Black films never gave the sense that they were trying all that hard. Hybrids of Spielbergian sci-fi wonder and snarky buddy-cop flicks, they were light, funny, weird, and unfussy — the kinds of movies you didn’t think too hard about, but that made for welcome time-wasters. (This applies mainly to the first two; Men in Black 3 came about a decade after the second entry and only partially captured that previous magic. The tyranny of the four-quadrant era was well underway by that point, and you could sense the third picture, with its weirdly emotional revelations, straining to be all things to all people.)
The lightheartedness of the original MIB films felt so organic and offhand in part because the concept fit the leads’ respective personae. As Agents K and J, two black-suited operatives working for a secret organization that apprehends malevolent alien life-forms hiding among the people of Earth, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith made for a no-brainer pairing. Jones was the deadpan, by-the-book hard-ass, Smith the street-smart wisecrack machine; just put them together and step back. The movies certainly didn’t write themselves — I’m sure they were doctored to death — but they sometimes felt like they had, mostly in a good way.
Hollywood, of course, can’t leave well enough alone, so Men in Black: International attempts to recharge this franchise for today’s audiences, with Chris Hemsworth and his Thor: Ragnarok co-star Tessa Thompson taking over, this time as Agents H and M. She’s the wide-eyed newcomer eager to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and has doggedly spent years trying to join the organization. He’s the smug but likable hotshot whose recent heroics in Paris apparently saved Earth from being invaded by a parasitic intergalactic force known as the Hive, but nowadays he appears to be resting on his laurels and looks. Together they’re tasked with escorting an alien big shot (and an old friend of H’s) who’s coming to Earth and wants to be shown a good time. They soon learn that the alien is safeguarding a strange, diamond-like object that may unlock a mysteriously powerful weapon. The Hive, of course, wants this weapon, and blah blah blah, somehow we’re in Marrakech.
It’s not that this new movie has forgotten the fleet-footed charm of the original MIB films; it’s just that it doesn’t quite know how to conjure it again, so it confuses levity with listlessness. Hemsworth and Thompson had terrific chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok, and they’re both gifted comic actors. But they’re not inherently funny presences the way Smith and Jones were; they need something to do. In Thompson’s case, she’s fairly engaging early on, as her plucky character, inspired by a childhood encounter with an alien and two Men in Black operatives, makes her way through the national-security apparatus trying to find this supposedly unfindable organization. In Hemsworth’s case, we get a bunch of jokes about his man-candy appeal and his various romantic conquests, a bit that the movie makes sure to wear out. Along for the ride with the duo is a wisecracking alien creature called Pawny, a sort of cross between a tiny iguana and a chess piece; he’s voiced by Kumail Nanjiani and given a lot of insistent, overly cute interjections that feel more desperate with each passing minute.
At times Men in Black: International seems to be going for a breezier version of a James Bond picture, but its world hasn’t really been imagined in any meaningful way. (For an example of how to do this the right way, look no further than the Man from U.N.C.L.E. adaptation from a few years ago.) Eventually it all just devolves into a series of lazy plot devices to get our heroes from point A to point B to point C. Along the way, the film seems content to always go for the easiest jokes, almost as if being too clever might go against the Men in Black ethos. (This is the point at which I’d give examples of some of these jokes, but I’ve already forgotten all of them, and I only saw the damned thing last night.) The end result is, oddly, a forced levity that is downright smothering. You don’t really laugh at MIB: International so much as feel guilty for not laughing at it.