Movies

Men in Black: International Teaches an Old Franchise New Tricks

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth star in the sequel, but Kumail Nanjiani steals it.

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth on a moped in a still from Men in Black: International.
Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in Men in Black: International.
Columbia Pictures

Few films love bureaucrats as much as the Men in Black movies do. The civil servants who oversee extraterrestrial immigration to Earth are meant to be faceless and unremarkable, but they’re clearly the epitome of cool. In their black suits and matching sunglasses—a uniform that connotes both old-school glamour and timeless adaptability—they always look like they’re strutting out of the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs. Service weapons only seem to come in chrome, their ostentatious futurism a nod to the agents’ daily interactions with beings most of the human race can’t even imagine. Then there are the ungoogleable nicknames: Will Smith’s J, Tommy Lee Jones’ K, and now, in Men in Black: International, Chris Hemsworth’s H and Tessa Thompson’s M. For some Men in Black, though, the agency’s erasure of its employees’ personal identities eventually becomes a bridge too far. At the end of the original film, for instance, K hung up his Ray-Bans and got the memories of his storied career zapped away to spend his retirement with the woman he loved.

Men in Black: International leans into those human frailties. Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Fate of the Furious) borrows heavily from another franchise with impossibly glamorous government employees—the James Bond series—to envision a British branch of the Men in Black, one weakened by infighting and complacency. Its best agent, H, saved the world three years ago with his then-partner, High T (Liam Neeson), who now runs the London division. But H gave up his monkish devotion to his agency long ago. He sleeps with alien babes, gets drunk on cocktails made from otherworldly substances, and drives his tricked-out sports car at terrifying speeds into the London office. (Hemsworth, attempting a posh English accent, might well be auditioning to replace Daniel Craig as 007.) Secure in his position as High T’s favorite, H arrives habitually late and falls asleep at his desk, earning the ire of his rival, C (Rafe Spall).

Into this muck enters newcomer M, née Molly, who saw her parents get zapped by the Men in Black as a child in Brooklyn and spent the next 20 years trying to join their ranks. (Her backstory as a plucky upstart who’s really into science isn’t the most original, but at least here screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway aren’t just recycling the plots and jokes of the 1997 film, like the celebrities-who-are-actually-aliens gag, as they do elsewhere.) M’s efforts to talk her way into the agency make for some nimble banter between the young woman and her would-be recruiter (a deliciously officious Emma Thompson), who deems Molly’s monomania for tracking down the Men in Black “suitably tragic.” (The two women also share a fleeting annoyance at the agency’s name and the traditionalists who refuse to change it.) Once dispatched to London, M is taken under H’s wing, as is a club-kid alien royal (What We Do in the Shadows Kayvan Novak, unrecognizable in an alien fat suit), whose assassination could trigger an intergalactic conflict.

The first Men in Black has aged surprisingly gracefully, even maintaining some contemporary relevance for its humane portrait of its space-traveling émigrés. In that film, most non-Earthlings were law-abiders grateful for refuge on our planet, and J and K dealt with the small fraction that defied the agency’s restrictions. Men in Black: International, on the other hand, barely acknowledges ordinary extraterrestrial migrants, focusing instead on dealers of drugs and arms. It does, at least, give the aliens a welcome makeover: While the 1997 film’s foreigners were associated with roaches, sea creatures, slime, and other repellent entities, the new character designs now come in a Pokémon-esque array. The jet-setting plot, in which H and M—or, as I kept thinking of them during the movie, “H&M”—chase after a powerful weapon to safeguard it, eventually wears thin, as does a storyline about a possible mole in the agency. But it’s never not fun to look at, as the action jumps from Apple Store–esque offices to Saharan dunes to an Italian island fortress, pursued by a pair of fantastic-looking electric-cloud henchmen (Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, aka Beyoncé backup dancers Les Twins) at H and M’s tail.

Hemsworth and Thompson somewhat reverse their roles from Thor: Ragnarok—and end up more or less repeating their roles from Avengers: Endgame. Hemsworth plays the washed-out lout, a trope he embodies with enthusiasm but little distinction, outside of some Naples-set peacocking that doubles as a Talented Mr. Ripley fashion spread in motion. Thompson gets a little more to do than play the responsible straight woman—she shoots guns and drives fast, too—but the character doesn’t quite cohere. It’s unfair to expect the franchise-launching chemistry between Smith and Jones, but the mere adequacy of Hemsworth and Thompson disappoints nonetheless. At least that leaves plenty of room for Kumail Nanjiani, voicing a hilariously pathetic miniature sidekick, to steal scene after scene with killer line deliveries.

Men in Black: International may be the latest in a series of reboots that recast male-dominated franchises to put women closer to the center, but its matter-of-fact embrace of women on both sides of the good-bad spectrum—including Rebecca Ferguson’s weapons merchant, who refuses to be loved and left by H—simply feels like an update to get with the times, rather than some major win for feminist representation. Molly, similarly, feels more like a cluster of girl-power motifs than a memorable heroine. Perhaps there’s meant to be some subtextual significance in the fact that the mostly white, mostly male London office is “saved” by the introduction of a woman of color, but because the film never notes this, you’d have to dig pretty hard for that interpretation. (And if a more overt iteration of that storyline is what you’re looking for, try Late Night, in which Emma Thompson is even more deliciously officious.)

The sudden fallibility of the Men in Black as an organization does give this otherwise rote action picture a strangely compelling throughline. The Men in Black give up a lot—a point that’s driven home in an unexpectedly poignant scene when H asks M, while they’re stranded in the desert, if she’s ever fallen in love, and her shy smile reveals the answer. Poignantly unspoken is the suggestion that because of her job, it will forever remain no. In exchange for such sacrifice, the agents are afforded power unlike anyone else’s on Earth—power that now seems liable to fall into the wrong hands, as such power almost inevitably does. Overstuffed and far from spry, Men in Black: International may be unnecessary, but you can’t accuse it of not going to new places.