It’s been about 22 years since the first “Men in Black” movie came out. Coincidentally, this is roughly the amount of time a new character – a young woman named Molly – has spent wanting to be part of the covert alien-wrestling agency that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have so skillfully represented up until this point. Molly was just a kid when she had her first face-to-face experience with the other species. And, although the black-suited, sunglasses-wearing G-men who showed up may have wiped her parents’ memories, they didn’t erase Molly’s brain. This has caused her to ask: Where can she sign up to become a super-secret agent like them? And do they accept women in the Men in Black?
It turns out that the second question was previously answered in 2012’s “MIB3,” when Emma Thompson replaced Rip Torn as the secretive organization’s no-nonsense overseer. And now, rising star Tessa Thompson (it turns out they are not related) sets out to address the first, donning the signature uniform — snug Paul Smith suit, white shirt, skinny black tie — and waltzing through the front door of the off-the-grid agency to volunteer her services. “Men in Black: International” is more of a reboot than sequel, and it is less coherent or polished than the sci-fi trilogy that preceded it. The film doesn’t make a big deal of the fact that its new recruit isn’t a man, but the importance won’t be lost on those who, when asked by their teachers what they want to be when they grow up, responded with traditionally male jobs: policeman, spaceman, President of the United States. Maybe they can now respond that they want to be a Men in Black agent.
Putting gender labels aside, the new movie in the series — directed by “The Fate of the Furious” director F. Gary Gray — has the tough task of introducing a pair of new lead actors to a franchise that depended so much on the interplay between troublemaker Smith and grouchy no-nonsense Jones. It is useful that Thompson and co-star Chris Hemsworth already established a kind of sportively quarrelsome dynamic in “Thor: Ragnarok” upon which it’s a delight to watch them build here.
If we are to consider Thompson’s Molly as the “probe” — or probationary recruit — then Hemsworth epitomizes the arrogant old pro who saved the world once alongside London division boss High T (Liam Neeson) “with nothing but their wits and series-70 atomizers.” A version of that scene opens the film, ending suddenly before the alleged world-saving occurs — the movie’s awkward way of cueing audiences that fresh blood matters when the agency’s most celebrated heroes could be jeopardized.
The fun is quite sluggish to begin here, as “Iron Man” screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum follow Molly, rechristened “M” during a training sequence that seems more like a makeover montage for the film’s various fashion partners. It’s not until a few scenes later, when M and Hemsworth’s Agent H meet, that the movie really starts to get amusing. The duo share a special kind of chemistry, like a cross between screwball comedy repartee and sibling rivalry, where Thompson (who’s about the same age as Chris Hemsworth) assumes the role of trying to impress — and possibly outdo — her more experienced co-star.
Director Gray doesn’t share Barry Sonnenfeld’s skill for juggling live-action and visual effects, which leaves the actors looking awkward as they react to computer-generated aliens that never convincingly appear to share their reality — a not-insignificant problem in a film shot largely on greenscreen and clumsily composited in post, such that everything from wide-open deserts to extra-terrestrial-crowded nightclubs look like they’re being rear-projected behind stars who never left the stages of Leavesden Studios. Scenes set on the inexplicably empty streets of Paris and London feel phony, while others crowded with people feel awkward as the extras don’t know how to behave. (A crucial conversation at MIB headquarters features what appears to be the same out-of-focus background actor randomly climbing the stairs over M and H’s shoulders.)
In terms of actual implementation, “Men in Black: International” is very muddled, and if the film were being graded merely in terms of method and skill, it may not even get a pasinsg grade. It has confusing inserts, flashbacks and loose ends belie last-minute accommodations to baffled test-screening audiences, amongst other things. The plot involves a visit from an alien named Vungus the Ugly, who holds the key to the most harmful weapon ever made: a blaster cannon powered by a super-compressed star, stored in a tiny purple crystal. H and M are entrusted with protecting him, but are no match for a shape-shifting, break-dancing entity played by “the Twins,” Laurent and Larry Bourgeois — evocative of the albino duo in the “Matrix” sequels.
After failing to protect Vungus, H and M go to Marrakech for some reason, where rival Agent C (an off-puttingly priggish Rafe Spall) starts to meddle with their investigation, while they adopt the last survivor of a tiny society of cute anthropomorphic chess pieces, named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Though posters for the film suggest significant screen time for Frank the Pug and the Worms — favorites from earlier installments — those creatures barely feature, whereas Pawny emerges as the duo’s new non-human companion. Nanjiani makes the character amusing, delivering a disproportionately high number of the film’s funniest lines, although his presence skews the entire experience younger, reinforcing the idea that “Men in Black: International” was intended for audiences who are aware of the franchise, but may not be old enough to have seen any of the previous films.
Certainly, these are the viewers who will be most easily amused by a series of painfully obvious twists and reversals crammed into the last reel, as the key characters father for the finale at the Eiffer Tower — where we’re told most of the aliens now living among us first made entry to our planet. By this point, the strong connection between Tessa Thompson and Hemsworth is what saves the day.
As he proved in 2016’s “Ghostbusters” reboot, Hemsworth has an innate comic talent that’s been underutilized in most of his work — although his recent Marvel projects have picked up on that gift, pairing him with actors with whom he can spar. Meanwhile, Thompson’s star has been quick to rise, and the most satisfying thing about this odd extension of the MIB series comes from watching her step up to the challenge of co-headlining a blockbuster. The results are quite unequal, improrable to match the commercial heights of the earlier films, but H and M have struck open the door to future entertainment from the Men — and also Women — in Black.