This thing where various Hemsworth brothers show up in profoundly unsatisfying years-later sequels to major Will Smith vehicles is likely nothing more than a coincidence, but I think it leads to a useful analogy: Liam Hemsworth as to Chris Hemsworth as Independence Day: Resurgence is to Men in Black: International. That is to say, MIB:I is nicer to look at, funnier, and just all-around less incompetent, but it's still pretty bland and insubstantial and a far cry from the day when movies & movie stars had real personality to them.

We have here the third sequel to 1997's delectable Men in Black, and by no means the worst of them: 2002's Men in Black II is a dire, peevish-making sort of thing that calls into question the whole business of summer blockbusters, while International is merely a dull-eyed mediocrity. And that means, for the third time, we have a movie huffing and puffing to do through immense labor what Men in Black achieved so effervescently: to capture something of the perfect chemistry of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as one of the most perfect odd couples of all popcorn cinema. MIBII couldn't do it, despite reteaming Jones and Smith; Jones was obviously unhappy being part of the project at all, and his surliness smothered the whole movie like a heavy blanket. 2012's Men in Black 3 sort of did it, but mostly that was about Josh Brolin having perfect chemistry with himself. And now MIB: International tries to do it with a huge cheat, by simply bringing in Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to replicate their relationship from 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, which we can now officially credit entirely to Taika Waititi, I think. It's not entirely clear to me why Hemsworth and Thompson could be so sparkling together in that film and so lifeless here; it's also not clear to me how Thompson, a hugely reliable and enjoyable actor, could manage to pull something active and humane out of her non-character in Creed II, but can't do more here than cycle between one of two different reaction shots (they are, for the record, pointing her face slightly down and looking slightly up with a tiny grin that reads as "I am impressed and amused", and squinting and wrinkling her nose in an unambiguous "God, why are you such an idiot?" expression). If we credit Waititi for the first film, maybe the simplest thing to do is to blame director F. Gary Gray for this one; he has, after all, only ever made one good film, and he made it 24 years ago.

Whatever gets us there, MIB: International is a real slog. The film replicates the basic situation of the first movie: a new recruit to the extra-governmental shadow organization Men in Black (which monitors the activities of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth) is shown the ropes by a laureled veteran. In so doing, they find themselves up to their necks in a crisis that might result in the destruction of the planet unless they, and they alone, are able to stop it. Getting to that point takes a bit of sweating: first we flash back to 2016, where Agents H (Hemsworth) and High T (Liam Neeson) of MIB's European branch stop an alien invasion from using the Eiffel Tower (which is actually a wormhole-generating device) to leap to Earth. Then we flash further back to 1996, where two rather shockingly lazy MIB agents in Brooklyn fail to account for the presence of a young girl when conducting that routine memory wipe. That girl, Molly (Thompson), grows up with an instense, single-minded focus on finding and joining the MIB, and when she convinces the New York office chief O (Emma Thompson) to sign her up, she's send on a trip to London to get her feet wet. Here, she ends up attaching herself to H, over his jovial objections. In hardly any time, they're zipping across the world trying to find evidence of a mole within the organisation, while also trying to stop a race called The Hive from invading.

In the 1997 movie - and the 2002 and 2012 movies - the plot was absolutely just a pretext for hanging out, enjoying the interplay of the cast, and dazzling at the inventive creature effects. International decides, fairly or not, to actually pay attention to its stakes and to really dig into the world building, and this is where many of its problems come from. The rest come from the characterisations of H and M (as Molly is rechristened): the hook here is still obviously meant to be a mismatched buddy cop comedy with a sci-fi flair, but Hemsworth and Thompson simply aren't mismatched enough to sell that. They approach dialogue the same way, they have the same general attitude towards using body language, and there's just no sense of abrasion between them. H is an annoying fuckwit much of the time (which actively works against the story's need to also have him be a top-notch agent), and M gets to be annoyed at him, and it's mildly agonising, but it's not mismatched. They're just sniping at each other to no apparent purpose. Certainly not because it's funny.

But back to the greater point, which is that this cares more about being an action-comedy than the earlier films, which were mostly just comedies that occasionally nodded in the direction of action. There are two things here: one, we have plenty of sci-fi action movies with a little bit of comic relief, and so this feels, weirdly, less fresh in 2019 than the 22-year-old Men in Black still manages to do. Two, Gray is a bad director of action - recall how he managed to make a tepid Fast & Furious movie, something that should really have been impossible in 2017 - and none of the setpieces in MIB: International feel like anything but the usual loud CGI objects bashing into other CGI objects, especially a race on a sci-fi motorbike through Marrakesh that feels like the most generic possible Jason Bourne movie cross-bred with the most generic possible Mission: Impossible movie.

"Most generic possible" is pretty much the defining phrase for this movie. The plot holds no surprises whatsoever, nor does the design - the sense of falling into a secret world that was so intoxicating in the first movie has been completely fumbled here. The comedy ranges from muted to irritating, mostly in the latter register: Hemsworth's smug bantering gets old fast, and the designated comic relief character, a four-inch tall member of a chess alien race named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) gets old even faster, with virtually every one of his lines being some variation on repeating a joke to make sure we noticed it. The whole thing is just a grind: an expensive-looking grind, to be sure, but 2019 isn't 1997, and the mere fact that this has good CGI aliens is nowhere near enough to justify how lifeless and soulless every other aspect of the production is.