The Men In Black films predicate on the notion that creatures walk and slither among us, many of them disguised as human beings. Like its three predecessors — including the still terrific 1997 original — Men in Black: International features an amusing throwaway gag revealing that some of these aliens are, in fact, impersonating real-life celebrities. If you ever had a suspicion that Donald Glover or Elon Musk were not entirely of this world, your suspicions were correct. The film itself, a weightless, forgettable summer distraction, offers its own meta-variation on the joke. It certainly looks like a Men in Black movie, insofar as it features the signature of people in black suits running around with memory-erasing devices (neuralizers), trying to protect the secrets of the universe while also keeping those secrets from destroying planet Earth. You will recognize this world the moment you hear the ominous strains of Danny Elfman’s original theme and set your eyes on a fresh gallery of CG alien creatures.
But the resemblance pretty much ends there. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are nowhere to be seen. The director, F. Gary Gray, and the screenwriters, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, are all new to the series, which is evident in the movie’s bland stylistic imprint. Even in spare fun moments, you know you’re in the presence of an imposter, a generic blockbuster wannabe disguised under an established franchise costume.
Tessa Thompson & Chris Hemsworth in Men in Black: International
Our story courses not only through space, but also time, beginning with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and the eye-rollingly-named High T (Liam Neeson) storming the Eiffel Tower for a confrontation with menacingly named Hive in 2016. With that bit of foreshadowing established, we jump straight back to 1996, when an up-and-coming science nerd Molly (Mandeiya Flory) gains a new dimension to her space obsession after witnessing an MIB operation on her own front porch. Molly’s parents are neuralized into joyous ignorance of the alien event, but Molly manages to escape with her memories intact. Cut to the present day, where Molly (Tessa Thompson) has tried every avenue available for joining the Men in Black short of simply attempting to just strolling in wearing a black suit. So that’s exactly what she finally does, wandering into the agency’s off-the-grid headquarters and gaining the instant admiration of the bureau chief Agent O (Emma Thompson) in the process.
Watching Will Smith being initiated into this secret society of intergalactic cops was one of the most enjoyable aspects of Men in Black, and Men in Black: International hits all those same beats but in an extraordinarily faster pace. After rushing through a training montage that practically resembles the “previously on” segment at the beginning of a TV episode, Agent O practically pushes the newly named Agent M out the door and onto and underwater express train to keep the plot moving… or, actually, to investigate Agent O’s suspicion that there might be something up at the MIB’s London office.
Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tessa Thompson & Chris Hemsworth in Men in Black: International
Before long, M has guided her way into partnership with Agent H, a loose cannon type. And before long, they begin a globe-trotting adventure that brings them to Italy, back to Paris, and Morocco. That last location provides Agent M with a plucky little alien sidekick named Pawny, a role for which Kumail Nanjiani deserves much praise simply for making the character less annoying than he could have been. But for a character named literally because he was the pawn on a living alien chessboard, it’s not an ideal situation for anyone. But Nanjiani also gets a couple of good laughs in, which is more than could be said for most of the film’s jokes.
As the film progresses, a familiar dynamic between the cynical veteran and the by-the-books rookie ensues. You might recall that Hemsworth and Thompson have also appeared together in the Marvel spectacles Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame, and their on-screen chemistry, for the most part, carries over here. H has entered a debauched decadent phase of drinking too much and indulging in ill-advised cross-species hook-ups. Which makes him ill equipped to mentor M and to give their mission the proper attention it deserves, which causes some bumps in the road. But as the globe-trotting intrigue continues it fans out to include a wasted Rebecca Ferguson, who seems to only be there so we could have a mini action set piece. But Tessa Thompson, whose star is deservedly on the rise, brings much needed glimmers of wit and magnetism to a character who doesn’t amount to much on the page.
In the age of pointless sequels, prequels and reboots, a question comes to mind while watching this film: What does Men in Black: International have to offer that’s new? The movie answers that question before the credits with a throwaway gag in which in the woman in the Columbia Pictures logo puts on a pair of MIB shades while keeping her torch held high. Fans of the series know that the sunglasses only go on when the neuralizers are about to zap some poor sap’s recollection of past events. Men in Black: International aims to do just that, erase any memory that you’ve seen all this before, but only leaves you with the hazy sense of deja vu, and the lingering conviction that the last time was a whole lot better. There may be life on other planets, but Men in Black: International certainly isn’t harboring any of it.