Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in Men in Black: International (Photo: Columbia)

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY F. Gary Gray
STARS Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson

The Dead Don’t Die is the name of the latest offering from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, but it also serves as the rallying cry for Hollywood executives who are unable to let long-dormant franchises go quietly into the night. “You’ll have to pry this tentpole from my dead, cold hands!” bleats one studio suit after another, and the proof is there on the screen. Occasionally, the long gestation period doesn’t lead to tragedy (e.g. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road, and I liked both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Prometheus; so sue me), but in other instances, the result is something on the dismal order of Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (yes, that’s an actual movie), Independence Day: Resurgence, and the truly grotesque A Good Day to Die Hard.

In the case of the Men in Black brand, we’ve been down this road before. The so-so Men in Black 3 arrived in 2012, a full decade after the depressing Men in Black II and 15 years after the delightful original. Fast forward seven years, and now there’s Men in Black: International, which is not only missing Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones but also any semblance of substance, style or smarts.

In this outing, the new recruit is Molly (Tessa Thompson), who was looking the other way as a child when a neuralyzer wiped clean her parents’ awareness of the MIB organization (if you have to ask what a neuralyzer is, then this series isn’t for you). Now an adult, she continues to seek out this clandestine outfit and finally locates it, a lifelong trek that impresses an MIB head (Emma Thompson) enough that she allows Molly to become an agent on a probationary status.

Dubbed Agent M, Molly is sent to serve in the London branch, headed by Agent High T (Liam Neeson). She latches onto Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a once-great operative whose recklessness and laissez-faire attitude have turned him into something of an office joke. But H has to bring his A game to his latest assignment, which requires him to protect an important interplanetary dignitary. He fails, of course — the e.t. ends up assassinated, but not before entrusting Agent M with a MacGuffin that’s being sought by a pair of shape-shifting aliens (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, collectively known as the French hip-hop dancers Les Twins). One mishap leads to another, and the two agents find themselves bouncing all over the globe, picking up a diminutive alien sidekick along the way. Nicknamed Pawny (and voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), he proves to be a valuable asset as agents H&M (not to be confused with the clothing line) are forced to contend with duplicity at every turn — not only from unfriendly aliens but from (gasp!) a traitor lurking within the MIB ranks.

The identity of the turncoat is so obvious that my 10-week-old daughter could doubtless figure it out between naps, but then again, such lazy scripting is par for the course in an assembly-line sequel such as this one. In the original Men in Black, the fun was in being granted access into the worlds of all these extra-terrestrial entities living here on Earth — the plot was sturdy enough but hardly the primary focus of the piece. The opposite is true here: The filmmakers seem to think the storyline is the hook, when it’s just so much nonsense. Unfortunately, they’re so busy zipping through its predictable beats that they largely neglect the alien cultures, offering them only as fleeting diversions.

Hemsworth and Thompson built up so much audience goodwill from their previous collaboration in Thor: Ragnarok that viewers will be satisfied by their antics here, with Thompson largely playing straight (wo)man and Hemsworth coasting on his goofy charm. A real casting coup would have been to hire Mark Ruffalo, the third side of the Thor: Ragnarok triangle, to voice Pawny, but Nanjiani nevertheless does what he can with his slate of tired quips.

As for the rest, it’s inoffensive piffle, the sort one can expect from a preprogrammed summer blockbuster wanna-be. There’s one effective chapter that’s set on an island and features Rebecca Ferguson as a three-armed arms dealer, and fans of the previous installment’s Frank the Pug will appreciate his brief cameo here. Otherwise, the rest is instantly forgettable — no neuralyzer required.

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