The Men In Black movies are about chemistry as much as they’re about aliens. Beginning with the gruff father/cocky son dynamic between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 original, the series has been powered largely by the interplay between its charismatic leads. Men In Black: International, the 22-years-in fourth entry in the franchise, is no exception, recruiting Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to recreate some of that Thor: Ragnarok magic as Agents H and M of the Men In Black. The fast-fashion pun there is presumably unintentional, but still a pretty apt description of the film, which is stylish enough to catch the eye but ultimately of rather shoddy construction.
Our story travels not only through space, but also time, beginning with Agent H and the eye-rollingly-named High T (Liam Neeson) storming the Eiffel Tower for a confrontation with the ominously named Hive in 2016. That bit of foreshadowing established, we jump straight back to 1996, when budding science nerd Molly (Mandeiya Flory) gains a new dimension to her space obsession after witnessing an MIB operation in her own backyard. Molly’s parents are neuralized into blissful ignorance of the extraterrestrial 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 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 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 at an accelerated pace. After hustling through a training montage that resembles the “previously on” segment at the beginning of a TV episode, Agent O practically pushes the newly christened Agent M out the door and onto an underwater express train to keep the plot moving... or, sorry, to investigate Agent O’s suspicion that there might be something amiss at the MIB’s London office.
Before long, M has maneuvered her way into a partnership with Agent H (Hemsworth), High T’s protege and a loose cannon in the “I don’t know how you keep getting away with it, but you do” mold. (That is an actual line of dialogue from the film.) Following the death of an alien royal named Vungus The Ugly on their watch, the two take off of a globe-trotting adventure that brings them to Italy, back to Paris, and—in a series of scenes that serve as an amusingly kid-friendly counterpoint to John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum—Morocco. That last location provides Agent M with a plucky little alien sidekick named Pawny, a role for which Kumail Nanjiani deserves an award simply for making the character less annoying than he could have been. Don’t get us wrong: He’s named “Pawny” 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 can be said for most of the film’s jokes.
The aliens M meets on her journey from “probe” to full MIB agent are all imaginatively designed but look awkward and out of place next to their human counterparts. That’s typical of Men In Black: International’s elaborate but lukewarm world-building: Nearly every scene features aliens or spaceships or top-secret technologies from beyond the Milky Way, but none of them evoke amazement, wonder, delight, or any of the other emotions one would hope to experience while encountering beings from another galaxy. And sure, this is part four in the series, so expecting a full tank of astonishment might be unrealistic. But is a little awe too much to ask for a film that lists Steven Spielberg among its executive producers?
Director F. Gary Gray, while experienced in both action and comedy, also struggles to keep the film’s picaresque plot on track. In Gray’s hands, the mystery doesn’t so much deepen as broaden, scattering characters and locations in its wake. And so, with the imperative to keep H and M hopping from one expensive international location to the next, the film’s overstuffed plot and elaborate production design end up feeling more like a checklist of incidents than an actual story. Hemsworth’s self-depreciating “himbo” act earns him good will, and he and Thompson mischievously bat at each other like kittens play-fighting throughout. But their sibling-rivalry energy, while endlessly charming, is similarly unfocused. Besides, Men In Black: International rarely stays still long enough for the audience to really savor the chemistry between the two. Like a UFO hovering in the night sky, one moment it’s there, and the next it’s gone.