The men, and some women, are back in black
As smash-crash-bash summer movies go, the original “Men in Black” was a welcome breath of fetid air. That smell from all those covert extraterrestrials — ewwwwwww. Even better, that chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones — ahhhhh. But that was 1997. Two sequels (the creatively titled “Men in Black II,” 2002; the slightly less creatively titled “Men in Black 3,” 2012) got the job done, more or less, but dark suits and sunglasses and “neuralyzers” — those skinny flashlight things that erase memories — can do only so much.
Now comes “Men in Black: International,” seven years after “Men Black 3.” F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton,” 2015, “The Fate of the Furious,” 2017) directed. Something called the Hive seeks possession of the most powerful weapon in the universe and . . . oh, you know.
As its pair of agents protecting Earth from extraterrestrial infestation, the movie reunites Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson from “Avengers: Endgame.” He’s Agent H (or “Haitch,” when pronounced by his boss, played by Liam Neeson). She’s Agent M. One of the nicer plot twists is how as a 6-year-old she witnessed two agents do their Men in Black thing, which made her want to grow up to be one of them. Be careful what you wish for.
“MiB: International” comes by the title honestly. It starts in Paris, making clever use of the Eiffel Tower, and moves on to Morocco, Brooklyn, London, and Naples. These Men in Black are Men on the Move. They’re Women in Black, too: Thompson, Emma, as Agent O, returns from “Men in Black 3,” to join Thompson, Tessa. Agent O, heading MiB, gives off a vibe that’s distinctly Judi Dench as M, from the latest cycle of Bond movies.
There’s been a lot of movie franchising in the years since the first “MiB,” and part of what keeps this perfectly OK outing from being perfectly anything more than that is how it keeps echoing other movies. Freshness means doing your own thing differently rather than other movies’ thing similarly. This one is definitely more Bondian, with its London orientation and Agent O’s Denchiness. Spoken in an English accent (Irish, in Neeson’s case), “MiB” sounds an awful lot like “MI5” or “MI6.” Concern about a possible mole (not the furry kind) and a reference to “MiB” as “the Circus” (not the three-ring kind) conjures up John le Carré.
The presence of Rebecca Ferguson, as an intergalactic arms dealer (Raytheon meets ray guns), rings a “Mission: Impossible” bell. MiB’s London HQ recalls the Harry Potter movies’ Ministry of Magic. Maybe they share visiting privileges. And a greater emphasis on the space creatures feels even more Potter-ish. Their antics become as much of a trial for the viewer as for Agents H and M (hey, H&M, tie-in possibilities). Creature wrangling was definitely in order. Where’s Hagrid when you need him?
In fairness, one of the potential wranglees pretty much steals the movie (if only it were a better movie). He, or it, looks like a tiny plucked version of an ewok, wears a coal-scuttle helmet, and answers to the name Pawny. I know, I know, but it works. That’s thanks to his being so amusingly voiced by Kumail Nanjiani.
Nanjiani, who in next month’s “Stuber” gets to play an actual human being (or at least an Uber driver), generates most of the laughs in “MiB: International.” One of the two biggest non-Pawny ones has to do with interspecies horizontality. What, you think the MPAA gives out PG-13 ratings frivolously? The other big laugh is a post-Thor sight gag wherein Hemsworth’s hand finds itself holding a certain familiar carpenter’s tool. No, not a saw.
It’s a tribute to Hemsworth that his superhero resume doesn’t qualify as casting-director baggage. His slightly inebriate charm has become a consistent moviegoing pleasure. Is there any movie star currently working who’s better at giving a sense of always being in on the joke? Agent H is like a dry martini laced with laughing gas and served in a beer mug. That’s a very strange combination, granted, but only if you stop to think about it, and Hemsworth makes sure you never do. It’s as if he’s wandered in from a different movie. That’s OK, though, since that movie is more entertaining.
Although Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson aren’t at all bad together, neither do they strike sparks. That’s unfortunate, since the movie flirts, and that is the word, with the idea of a romance between them. “Men in Black: The Rom Com,” now that would be a real departure. The tie-in possibilities are staggering. Imagine how many relationships memory erasure might save. Neuralyzers could be sold exclusively at H&M.
★ ★ ½
MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL
Directed by F. Gary Gray. Written by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum; based on the comic books by Lowell Cunningham. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material).