Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson Are the Best Thing About ‘Men In Black: International’

Men in Black: International” features two appealing leads in what amounts to more of a reboot than a sequel. What began as goofy satire spoofing a 90s obsession with UFOs now turns into more of a standard action franchise. But actors with a special touch can make even standard material better. Chris Hemsworth, taking a break from swinging Thor’s hammer and Tessa Thompson take over roles first made iconic by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, updating them into a zestier, even flirtatious duo. Now if only these two could be transported into a better movie.

You know the drill so well the film doesn’t even bother to explain it. Aliens commute between the cosmos and Earth and the “Men in Black” keep track of it all. New Yorker Molly (Thompson) has been aware of this since the night she was a little girl and watched two “MIBs” zap away her parents’ memories. At the time a little alien had crashed in her room and took off into the night. As an adult Molly has been obsessed with finding the black-clad agents, eventually sneaking into their headquarters after tracking down a visiting flying saucer. Big boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) likes Molly enough to offer her a slot if she can prove herself by going to the London branch and work under Agent High T (Liam Neeson). Now christened Agent M, our heroine locks eyes with Agent H (Hemsworth), a rule-breaker tasked with protecting an important alien visitor who has a thing for clubbing and the ladies. But on their first night out H and M are caught in an assassination attempt that sets them on a course to uncover a plot to (what else?) blow up the universe.

To relaunch the “Men in Black” franchise for this era of endless rebooting the task has been given to director F. Gary Gray, a filmmaker of intense dramas and action thrillers like “Straight Outta Compton” and the great “Set It Off.” His best-known comedy is the smoked-out “Friday.” He makes “Men in Black: International” visually stylish, with a love for the suits, smooth watches and dark sunglasses, but what’s missing is the awareness that this is supposed to be satire. The original 1997 “Men in Black,” starring Smith and Jones, worked like a Mad Magazine riff on all the paranoia, urban legends and alien abduction lore popular in the decade of “The X-Files.” Two lesser sequels followed, still keeping at least that vibe going. Maybe the studio felt audiences want more ticking bomb plot points than wit these days.

The screenplay by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum is so careful to avoid too much originality that you can walk out, take a call, walk back in and still predict what’s about to happen next. H and M meet up with the visiting alien VIP, who wants to party and immediately likes M, and then alien assassins who for whatever reason first landed in Marrakech kill the honored guest. Why? He carried a little cube with star-like shapes on it which could potentially obliterate the world. From there it’s all about the two agents figuring out who would want such a device, and we can bet it must be someone very evil. The movie is on such autopilot that the M doesn’t even seem amazed at how their car has endless weapons you can yank from the doors, rear view mirrors, exhaust pipe, etc. And while the aliens at the London MIB headquarters chat with English accents, the settings lack such identity that we don’t care much where this is all happening. There are a few moments with some more classic “Men in Black” humor. M walks into the London headquarters and sees the famous display screen where earthlings who are actually aliens flash by. We learn that Donald Glover is not of this world for example. Subway trains are full of different kinds of extraterrestrials zooming and running around. But it lacks the goofy, inventive charm of the original movie, with aliens so unimaginative one is quite simply a giant bird talking on a cell phone. The best new alien character is a miniature alien named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), whose queen was killed by the roaming intergalactic assassins. He pledges his loyalty to M but also brings cynical, hilarious commentary for the rest of the adventure.

Now to the best part of the movie, which are the lead duo of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. If there is a fascinating value to “Men in Black: International” it’s how these two actors are so good we enjoy watching them banter and flirt with a weak script. Hemsworth plays Agent H like a young punk James Bond, drinking too much and waking up in bed with a strange alien. He sports a cocky attitude reminiscent of George Clooney in his “E.R.” days. It’s as if his beer-guzzling Thor from “Avengers: Endgame” stayed the same but slimmed down. Thompson has so much presence, intelligence and charisma that we wish she were given better lines. She’s both likeable and serious enough to pull off the secret agent look, and we wouldn’t mind her being put in an action movie that’s supposed to be just that. She is proving to be quite versatile after delivering memorable performances in two “Creed” movies and in recent Marvel epics. Together the two, who were already paired up in “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Endgame,” have fantastic chemistry. But they only lack the dry humor and whacky antics that are at the heart of “Men in Black.”

Describing the rest of the film is like describing every other throwaway action movie you have seen and will continue to see this summer. The two agents travel to another country, get into shoot outs, speed away in cars and motorcycles, and must soon find a traitor in their midst. To say they save the world is not a spoiler, and it’s certain you will be able to guess how they do it. Liam Neeson gets to do another variation of his “Taken” or “The Commuter” character and Emma Thompson is simply great at looking great and delivering her lines with authority. But “Men in Black: International” should offer more laughs and not just assume that you want more rehash than reboot.

Men in Black: International” opens June 14 in theaters nationwide.