If you're going to reboot a semi-iconic, though immensely overrated, franchise then you'd best be prepared for the subsequent comparisons to come when it comes to recasting co-lead roles previously helmed by the larger than life charisma of Will Smith and the grumpmaster extraordinaire Tommy Lee Jones.
So, let's get this out of the way first.
Tessa Thompson, though immensely talented and one of the best things about Men in Black: International, is no Will Smith.
Chris Hemsworth, likely to no one's surprise, is certainly no Tommy Lee Jones even when his persona is shifted from grumpy to something more resembling narcissistic assholery.
I don't think assholery is really a word, but it fits and I'm using it.
It doesn't help that Thompson and Hemsworth, who had terrific chemistry and remarkable potential in Thor: Ragnarok, exhibit almost zilch in the way of chemistry here and neither one is yet quite strong enough as a performer to overcome the mediocre material served up by co-scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway that never quite finds that balance between action and comedy that made the original Men in Black work so beautifully and the two subsequent films fail so miserably.
Men in Black: International is, however, a modestly entertaining endeavor almost despite itself. At her worst, Tessa Thompson is an immensely engaging actress and her charisma, while not quite enough to transcend the film's woeful lack of intrigue and workmanlike tone that never really creates much of a spark. Thompson plays Agent M, who as a young girl encountered a friendly alien and the mysterious Men in Black while managing to escape the usual neuralizing effect used by MIB and spends the next 20 years of her life remembering every detail of the encounter and determined to don the black suit in an official capacity. When she, with rather disturbing ease, manages to sneak her way into MIB headquarters, she wins the support of Agent O, played by a returning Emma Thompson), and quickly sees her dreams come true as she finds herself alongside Hemsworth's Agent H, an MIB legend for having saved the Earth only a year earlier but whose subsequent days seem to have tarnished his shine just a bit. The film's trailers have already given away the key plot point for the film, that a mole has infiltrated MIB, and it only makes sense that Agent H and Agent M will, at the direction of Liam Neeson's High T, find themselves traveling from London to Marrakesh to Naples to Paris in an effort to stop the shape-shifting The Hive from threatening the world's survival.
Are you excited yet?
Director F. Gary Gray has handled such films as Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious with tremendous success, though Gray struggles to find a balance that works here. Men in Black: International has action that feels remarkably timid, laughs that feel awfully muted, and relationships that never quite convince. Individually, the cast here does some fine work but it's never a good sign when a secondary character, in this case a love 'em or hate 'em lil' guy going by Pawny who is voiced by comic turned actor Kumail Nanjiani, is the film's highlight and steals just about every scene he's in. Pawny has almost nothing to do with the plot, but he's an adorable little guy and Nanjiani pace the humor just right to make it all work.
Men in Black: International isn't an awful film, easily the second best of the four films, though it's also nowhere near the film it could have been and it should have been. The film's greatest weakness is without a doubt the lack of chemistry between Thompson's Agent M and Hemsworth's Agent H, which is hindered greatly by Hemsworth's playing Agent H as something like that high school bully who would snap a girl's bra and call it flirting then get offended when called out on the behavior.
While Hemsworth, who can be quite good with the right material, is the undeniable weak link here, Thompson very nearly salvages the film on her own almost solely on the strength of her charm, charisma, and obviously strong effort here. She's at her best here when she's dialed down into a more naturalistic performance, while she flounders opposite Hemsworth in the film's more action-oriented sequences.
Emma Thompson is also a shining star here, a fact that can't help but make the mind wander and wonder if a Thompson/Thompson offering wouldn't have been an awful lot more entertaining to watch. Liam Neeson, looking like he either stepped out of a wax museum or a live-action Frozen set, is slick and occasionally fun but mostly unsatisfying.
Men in Black: International entertains, but it's mostly low-grade entertainment that you'll likely instantly forget once you've left the theater. Even Danny Elfman, scoring the film alongside Chris Bacon, serves up original music that feels overly familiar and taps all of Elfman's usual notes of eccentricity, quirk, and occasional emotional resonance.
The film likely, if I'm being honest, benefited from incredibly low expectations and disappointing trailers. It's a decent film that never rises up to its potential, though it also never completely derails and it's the kind of film you likely won't begrudge giving a couple hours of your time.
Men in Black: International is for the kind of casual moviegoer who simply enjoys a low-pressure date night or a couple hours in a darkened theater with no agenda other than complete and utter escapism. A very distant cousin to the goofy charms of the Ghostbuster films, Men in Black: International is a modestly entertaining flick that is more teaser than pleaser but with two of Hollywood's most likable stars it should prove to be just entertaining enough for the less discerning moviegoer.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic