The most heinous crime of “Men In Black: International” isn’t committed by the bloodthirsty CGI curiosities slaughtering their way to possession of a star-powered bazooka. Nor does it resemble a skittering omnishambles of a cockroach monster trying to find a pocket galaxy on a kitty cat’s neck. No, the planet-sized felony of this fourth installment in a 22-year-old film franchise: robbing Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson of a movie worth their wattage.
It’s a gamble to take Will Smith out of the suit and tie, but with that pair donning the sunglasses, “Men In Black: International” seemed up to the challenge. The original “Men In Black,” remember, came correct. The dark, color-drained palette, the campy sense of the grotesque. Everything had a consistent POV, from the seedy alien pawn shops to the sterile MIB headquarters. And it was a marvel of tight plotting at 1 hour and 38 minutes. The screenwriters served Smith and Tommy Lee Jones with a script that vibrated to their exact frequency.
“Men In Black: International” had the highest quality building materials, too — built-in goodwill from a nostalgic fanbase; exciting young stars with established chemistry; Emma Thompson waving around a day-pass to Tilda Swinton’s closet. Alas, director F. Gary Gray, saddled with a dusty lunar crater of a script, ended up crafting not a thrillingly modern reinvigoration but an entirely inoffensive thing. It runs through a checklist: generic sci-fi set dressing, talking pugs, shoot-em-up banter and empty-headed summer blockbuster twists.
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In the film, Molly (Tessa Thompson, still as cool as a Janelle Monae video) has spent her entire life trying to find the Men In Black after a childhood encounter. (She missed the neuralizer boat.) She’s a hypercompetent conspiracy theorist, like Dana Scully from an alternate universe where she founded the Lone Gunmen. Her conspiracy theories are correct, of course, so she moxies her way into the titular organization after impressing Agent O (Emma Thompson, whipping out withering glances from behind architectural breathtaking jackets).
The newly christened Agent M is transferred to MIB’s London branch, run by High T (Liam Neeson, hardy har har) and defined by the lionized reputation of Agent H (Hemsworth, still as charming as a thunder god). See, T and H saved the world a few years ago from an invading species of alien baddies who colonize civilizations from the inside out. Their swashbuckling is the stuff of sloganized legend. These days, however, T is in charge of the bureau, and H is a party boy living off his charm and reputation.
Before long, H and M (hardy, and I can’t emphasize this enough, har har) find themselves teaming up to protect an alien royal who’s basically a reptilian DJ Khaled with light-up skin. They don’t do what you would call a traditionally “good” job, and before you know it, the pair of agents are on a globetrotting adventure with a hover-bike, a devastating weapon and a pair of matter-transmuting changelings hot on their tail.
Fun! Doesn’t that sound fun? Aliens, so fun. Can you hear my teeth grinding?
The well-tailored duo of Thompson and Hemsworth are simply the engine that keeps this pre-fab saucer flying. Their on-screen chemistry was already proven in battle from 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” where Thompson’s soused brawler Valkyrie teamed up with Hemsworth’s yellow Labrador of an Asgardian deity to escape Jeff Goldblum’s intergalactic slaver and beat back Cate Blanchett’s goddess of death. (File that sentence under “Postcards From Better Movies.”) Turns out, the pairing of “impossibly cool competence” and “quippy hunkiness” works just as well in clandestine alien crime capers as it does in superhero comedies.
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Hemsworth makes the best case yet for a James Bond with intimate knowledge of kangaroos. His Agent H, cutting a Tom Ford profile with striped rainbow socks underneath, flashes smiles and thumbs-ups to solar effect. He kicks ass and gets his ass kicked in such harmonious balance that it should be considered an astronomical convergence by NASA. Thompson, meanwhile, makes an excellent case that she should play Batman. Her Agent M fixes hyperdrives, arches eyebrows, talks smooth, scales cliffs and thrums with obsession over the secrets of the universe. “Men In Black: International” can’t seem to decide if it wants the two to be in love or in mutual professional admiration, but as long as Hemsworth and Thompson are on-screen together, you won’t care which.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s screenplay is the story equivalent of a Honda Civic. The car drives just fine, but aren’t you bored yet? The motivations of the villains are rote; the twists are more like slight left turns. There’s a lingering sense that there aren’t many jokes in the script but you laughed because the stars sold the lines. An arms dealer played with “Absolutely Fabulous” verve by Rebecca Ferguson seems like she’ll be fun, until you realize they dressed her up like a cosmic Betsey Johnson just to punch the clock as a side character.
And there’s even a cute alien sidekick named Pawny that looks explicitly designed to become a Funko Pop. For the most part, his scenes and one-liners appear stitched into the action as afterthoughts. His contribution to the bigger picture of “Men In Black: International” can be summed up with “Thank God he’s voiced by Kumail Nanjiani.”
Before you know it, the movie’s over, and you’ve got an empty smile on your face, like someone who just chugged a Pepsi before you knew the store sold Coke. “Couldn’t that have been much better?” you think.
Chris, Tessa: don’t change a thing. Shadowy folks pulling the strings behind the scenes: Let Emma Thompson take a crack at the script for the sequel.