Director Barry Sonnenfeld scored a galaxy-sized hit back in 1997 with the original Men in Black, which spawned a video game spin-off, long-running animated series, two movie sequels and – who could forget – a platinum-selling single. There’s no danger of this film having a similar cultural impact (for starters, it’s missing a banging theme song) but Sonnenfeld’s replacement, gun-for-hire F Gary Gray, delivers enough high-grade sci-fi spectacle and slickly-choreographed action that it should maintain public interest in the franchise for at least another sequel.
So while we all need to make peace with the fact we may never know what strange fruits the long-mooted Jump Street/Men in Black crossover might have borne, this softish reboot of the latter at least does enough to justify its existence. Of course, some fundamental changes have been made from the Men in Black’s last big screen outing in 2012. Out are hitherto franchise mainstays Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, in are Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as H and M respectively, super-secret agents who must team up to thwart a new threat to the planet.
While Jay and Kay were sworn to protect Earth from extraterrestrial scum, H and M are tasked with ridding MIB’s London branch of a mole who is somehow connected to an intergalactic heist. Rafe Spall’s aptly named C seems the most likely culprit, but there’s reason to suspect that even Liam Neeson’s top brass High T may have been compromised. With the agency on high alert and a mysterious pair of Wachowskian malcontents running amok, H and M set off in pursuit of an Infinity Stone-style weapon that has fallen into the wrong hands.
Thompson’s Molly is introduced via flashback as a young girl on the night she encountered a cuddly space critter – a life-changing experience she remembers because the agents who arrived on the scene failed to neuralyze her. Twenty years later, she’s working in a call centre, still harbouring hope of one day learning the truth about the universe. Molly’s red pill moment finally arrives when she infiltrates MIB’s New York headquarters and is duly rewarded by being recruited. Sadly, however, this transpires to be another case of a studio movie paying lip service to women in STEM, as Molly’s hacking skills and scientific know-how go unused for the remainder of the film. But hey, at least she looks dynamite in a suit and shades.
The most surprising thing about the film is that it functions best as a send up of old-school espionage capers, with Hemsworth essentially doing 007 with a more exotic sexual appetite. Early on a high-stakes poker game ends with him copping off with a tentacled floozy, while a brief sojourn to Naples later on reunites H with old flame Riza, a similarly limby arms dealer played by Rebecca Ferguson. Thompson is subsequently reduced to the role of sidekick for large parts of the film, rolling her eyes whenever H’s alpha male bullshit undermines their mission. Thor: Ragnarok proved that she and Hemsworth have great on-screen chemistry, so more fool screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum for failing to allow them to spar as we know they can.
As the title suggests, Men in Black: International is a globetrotting adventure that strives to be broader in scope and more worldly-wise than its predecessors. Yet it comes across as more performatively woke than anything else. Planet-sized plot holes and some ropey characterisation certainly don’t help matters, but off the back of X-Men: Dark Phoenix’s cringeworthy ‘X-Women’ bit it’s especially grating to see Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson delivering cheap this-one’s-for-all-the-ladies-in-the-room lines concerning the film industry/titular organisation’s patriarchal slant. On the plus side, Liam Neeson gets blasted into space.