The 1997 original Men in Black owed its success to the chemistry between stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as much as to the clever concept, taken loosely from Lowell Cunningham’s Malibu Comics series. The idea of a secret agency protecting Earth from aliens is simple and effective, and the movie presented it stylishly, with sharp writing from Ed Solomon, lively direction from Barry Sonnenfeld and creative creature design by Rick Baker. If it wasn’t quite the Ghostbusters of the 1990s, it certainly came close.
Neither of Sonnenfeld’s sequels starring Smith and Jones, in 2002 and 2012, recaptured that balance, although Men in Black 3 had its moments, thanks to the pairing of Smith and Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character. Now Men in Black: International is attempting a soft reboot of the franchise, with a new pair of agents but the same basic formula. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are saving the planet this time around, based in the Men in Black agency’s London office.
Thompson’s Molly (later Agent M) has spent her life searching for the Men in Black, ever since her parents discovered an alien in their Brooklyn apartment, and then had their memories erased by the MIB agents’ neuralyzer. Molly escaped neuralization, and spent the next 20 years tracking alien activity so she could catch MIB operatives in action. When Molly comes to the attention of Agent O (Emma Thompson, returning from Men in Black 3), the head of the New York City branch, she’s offered the chance to become a probationary agent in London at the office headed by High T (Liam Neeson).
There she teams up with Hemsworth’s Agent H, who’s more of a James Bond type, a reckless womanizer who doesn’t play by the rules and consistently flouts authority. It’s wise for writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum and director F. Gary Gray not to try to duplicate the dynamic between Smith and Jones, and Hemsworth and Thompson previously demonstrated strong chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok. International still pairs a veteran with a new recruit, but it’s the junior agent who’s more interested in following the rules this time, with M attempting to rein in H’s worst tendencies.
Hemsworth and Thompson play off each other well, even if they don’t have the same giddy energy they did in Ragnarok. But after a few character-building moments at the beginning of the movie, H and M function mostly as cogs in the convoluted plot, which drags on far too long and never features a compelling (or even clear) antagonist. The original MIB trilogy distinguished itself by its oddball alien villains, but the primary bad guys here are a pair of alien twins (played by real-life twins Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois of the dance duo Les Twins) who barely ever speak and have a muddled agenda.
In the MIB tradition, the twins are after an ultra-powerful doodad that could decide the fate of the universe. A dying alien leader passes the mysterious device to M after an attack by the twins, and she and H go on the run once they suspect that an MIB mole may have been feeding information to the alien assassins. It all ties in to an evil alien race known as the Hive, whom H and High T defeated three years earlier at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Despite all the shady alliances and plot twists (including a climactic reveal that is thuddingly obvious), the story is dull and sluggish, and there’s no emotional core to the mission.
A detour to the island estate of alien arms dealer Riza (Rebecca Ferguson of the Mission: Impossible series), who happens to be H’s ex, could have been dropped without any impact, and the bond between H and M never feels more than perfunctory. Neeson seems to be going through the motions as the mentor and father figure to H, and Emma Thompson is severely underused as the much more intriguing MIB leader (she shows up only briefly at the beginning and end of the movie).
The effects team comes up with some fun new alien creations, including the movie’s most appealing character, a tiny alien servant nicknamed Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), and some of the notable supporting aliens from previous movies make amusing cameo appearances. Overall, Men in Black: International looks slick and anonymous, a quality Gray brought to his last franchise blockbuster effort, 2017’s The Fate of the Furious. He launched his career by directing stoner comedy classic Friday, but the filmmakers here seem to have forgotten MIB started out as a sci-fi comedy, and there’s virtually nothing funny about International. The emphasis is almost entirely on large-scale action, and the occasional jokes are pretty feeble. The effects may look amazing, but none of the wit has carried over.
Directed by F. Gary Gray and starring Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall and Emma Thompson, Men in Black: International opens Friday nationwide.