What a pair Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth would make in a screwball comedy. A match made in madcap heaven, the pair each bring natural charisma in front of any camera placed in their path. And when their peanut butter and jelly chemistry is combined, it makes for effortless ratatat charm. In a better world, a studio would deploy them on a dozen verbal battlefields.
Alas, we live in one where the only major cinematic landscapes left are digital, and CGI set pieces are prized over the written word, never mind the human dynamite these movies only occasionally realize they possess. Thus Thompson and Hemsworth are relegated to mindless, if benign, chaos like Men in Black: International, a dimly amusing summer spectacle that is eager to cast the two winning leads of Thor: Ragnarok together again, even though it has no interest in allowing them to compete for anything worthwhile.
A diverting and harmless multiplex-filler, Men in Black 4 is designed to do little else than take up space in a movie theater, on a billboard, and in a studio’s quarterly report. Even so it is still probably the best MIB movie since the 1997 original, but then that doesn’t say too much for a franchise that is primarily comprised of big screen neuralizers at this point.
A soft reboot of the three movies that came before, Men in Black: International doesn’t deny the original trio of movies happened and even replicates much of their iconography and some of those memorable peripheral characters, including most appreciably Emma Thompson as Agent O. Even so, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are nowhere to be seen, nor are K and J ever mentioned (aloud, at least). Rather the new hotshot of the MIB organization is Agent H (Hemsworth), a dreamy if doltish Australian all-star of the alien police’s London branch. We learn this via the confusing opening sequence that shows H and his mentor (Liam Neeson) fighting aliens on the Eiffel Tower before the story begins 20 years earlier. It is only in the past that it finds focus by following a little girl.
That child’s name is Molly but she’ll soon grow up to become Agent M (Thompson), the true lead of the film who, after meeting an alien in her youth and spying on some black suits in sunglasses, has spent her whole life trying to find out who “they” are and how to join. She ends up doing just that by breaking into MIB headquarters and impressing O enough to be recruited on probationary status and sent to the London office. Soon enough, Agent M’s savvy no-nonsense intelligence is partnered up with H’s hotshot jock demeanor, and they’re jetting around the world to Paris, Naples, and elsewhere to unpack an entirely irrelevant mystery about an alien super weapon. But boy, do they look good in black and on the back of speedboats.
Despite a needlessly convoluted first act, there’s not much going on in Men in Black: International’s plot. It is all about style and spectacle. And when it relies on Thompson and Hemsworth’s already well-stylized chemistry from Marvel, it works; when it attempts to recreate the zany alien gags of the original movie, it mostly doesn’t.
One exception, however, involves a digital critter who is literally an alien pawn the size of a chess piece—he comes to consider M as his queen and offers requisite comic relief and his life in service of her—but much of the extraterrestrial shenanigans are contrived, lacking the wit or surprise of the first Barry Sonnenfeld film. Rather than being beguiling that an arms dealer played by Rebecca Ferguson has three literal arms, it’s merely a useless appendage that distracts from the actress’ questionable fright wig. And instead of being horrified by the nasty new alien adversaries H and M are fighting, we’re left perplexed as to why there have now been three movies this year that feature shapeshifting visitors from imperiled planets.
There is just not much that director F. Gary Gray and team bring to the table. Now best known for Straight Outta Compton, Gray falls back into his usual pattern of relying on star charisma to carry things through, like Dwayne Johnson in The Fate of the Furious or Charlize Theron in The Italian Job. But that latter flick came in an era where movies were at least comfortable with letting their stars ably pilot run-of-the-mill vehicles. Nowadays, even Thompson’s ability to imbue M with the self-awareness of knowing what kind of movie she’s in, and Hemsworth leaning into his beefcake moron routine from the Ghostbusters remake, is drowned out by the actual CGI vehicles and product placement Lexuses they’re constantly being chased in.
There is actually quite a bit of similarity between International and Sony’s previous Ghostbusters remake. While this is more shrewdly a soft-reboot (likely in part due to the response toward that earlier film), each have a terrific cast who seem overshadowed by a committee’s litany of compromises rather than a single innovative idea. This is the better of the two, but moments where it directly mimics the original film—such as playing Danny Elfman’s mid-20th century, Americana tinged score from 1997 that was written for Tommy Lee Jones to “retire” to—fall flat when laid over a scene about Hemsworth getting evaluated by his boss. There’s just no reason why Men in Black needed to be revived here other than it exists in an era of eternal intellectual property revival.
Hence Men in Black: International is neither good nor bad, black or white. It’s an inoffensive, and unappealing, gray.