MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Men in Black: International’ Proves Charismatic Leads and Eye-Catching Visuals Do Not a Soft Reboot Make
No Will Smith; no (major) problem.
With Will Smith completely uninterested in returning to the 22-year-old Men in Black franchise (once upon a time, Smith made it look good) and otherwise busy with other commercial pursuits (playing a blue-skinned, top-knotted, magical genie in the recent live-action Aladdin adaptation), Tommy Lee Jones all-but-retired from performing, Sony Pictures unsurprisingly turned to one of the MCU’s MVPs, Chris Hemsworth, and Hemsworth’s Thor: Ragnarok co-star, Tessa Thompson, to restart and/or soft reboot a series that last saw the darkened interior of an air-conditioned movie theater seven years ago (given the rapidity in which pop-culture favorites turn into yesterday’s disposable detritus, zero guarantee moviegoers will respond with more than just passing nostalgia). It was still a gamble. Hemsworth has yet to carry a film outside the MCU. Thompson has yet to topline a major studio film. On individual charisma and collective chemistry alone, Hemsworth and Thompson prove themselves more than worthy of headlining a big-budget, spectacle-driven franchise entry of their own, the F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious, Straight Outta Compton, The Negotiator, Friday) directed Men in Black: International.
When we first meet Thompson’s character, Molly, she’s actually a preteen (Mandeiya Flory). One close encounter of the alien kind later (minus a neuralyzer) and Molly has decided to devote her life to pursuing the truth behind that encounter, including the men in black who appeared at her parents’ door and erased their memories. She spends the better part of two decades educating herself, training, and otherwise preparing for the fateful day when she can locate the men in black’s super-secret location and join them. She does, but she’s quickly discovered, forcing her to convince Agent O (Emma Thompson) to let her join the Men in Black organization, a vast bureaucracy that oversees the alien refugees living amongst us and any danger they might pose. She does that too, of course, but only as a probationary agent and a transfer to the MIB’s international headquarters in London to investigate O’s suspicion of a mole working inside the London office.
In London, Molly, working under her MIB moniker, M, meets Agent H (Hemsworth), a hedonistic, rock-star agent and in-house celebrity who saved the world against a vaguely described alien menace, the Hive, with the recently appointed head of MIB International, High T (Liam Neeson). While H freelances, mixing business – tracking down dangerous alien gangsters – with pleasure – sleeping with an alien gangster’s ex-lover – M gets the lay of the London office’s land, meeting a virtual alien menagerie, she also interacts with High T’s second-in-command and H’s principal rival, Agent C (Rafe Spall). After a supposedly straightforward security mission goes explosively sideways, H and M embark on a globe-trotting adventure, from Marrakesh to the desert, back to Marrakesh, London, and Paris, pursuing Men in Black: International’s central MacGuffin, evading a pair of deadly, shapeshifting aliens (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), and infiltrating the fortified island fortress of H’s ex-flame and arms dealer, Riza (Rebecca Ferguson).
The Men in Black series shared more than just Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the lead roles. Besides the central sci-fi premise and a slight, anti-bureaucratic satire, they primarily shared a light, comic tone. The stakes in each film mattered far less than the chemistry and rapport between Smith’s enthusiastic, naïve newbie/audience stand-in and Jones’ dry, droll cynicism. Men in Black: International flips genders and roles, turning Smith’s first-time agent into Thompson’s excitable newbie and Jones’ ready-for-retirement old hand into Hemsworth’s much younger, if still cynical, celebrity agent. The character changes and trait swaps provide Men in Black: International with its greatest, in-film strengths, but it’s Hemsworth, channeling his inner dude-bro (hardly a stretch, admittedly), and Thompson, channeling an energetic, youthful vitality (along with an engaging, open, onscreen presence), that really make Men in Black: International, worth a movie theater sit-down and not just a streaming view or cable watch.
All that chemistry between the leads, though, can’t hide Men in Black: International’s super-safe, short-on-originality story involving a super-secret, super-dangerous object of desire or a shockingly twist-free mole-inside-MIB subplot borrowed cynically borrowed from the Mission: Impossible series. Hemsworth and Thompson repeatedly compensate for weak, underwritten dialogue through performances defined by sheer willpower and astute comic timing. Men in Black: International tries to import the lightly comic, slyly subversive tone from the original series, but only succeeds sporadically. Even as the dialogue and intermittent humor continue to disappoint, Men in Black: International still manages to deliver the series’ trademarks: chrome-plated weapons, amped-up, futuristic cars, multi-hued, multi-limbed aliens in practically every shape, form, and variety, and the best multiplex-quality, action-oriented spectacle Sony’s money could buy.