Dir: F. Gary Gray. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani. 12A cert, 115 min
Men in Black: International doesn’t much care about being a Men in Black movie, but did they ever? Squishing aliens with a shrug – splat, forget, move on – has been the name of the game since the original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones delivered the smash hit of 1997. The franchise, derived as it was from a comic-book series eventually bought up by Marvel, has never seemed overly invested in continuity or lore. It’s a slick, wipe-clean operation, with each movie only as good as the new ideas it flings into the fray.
Here, alas, is where this fourth instalment – the first not to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, but Straight Outta Compton’s F. Gary Gray – falls down. It goes all-in on the foolproof chemistry, at the expense of everything else. We know from Thor: Ragnarok and the subsequent Avengers pow-wows how well Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson can spar, but their partnership only takes a film so far when the script’s in freefall and nothing else seems to have a stake.
As this one begins, Hemsworth is Agent H, a loose cannon in the alien police squad. Thompson’s Molly, soon to be Agent M, has long been an outsider looking in, ever since a childhood house-call from these shady operatives gave her the itch to join their ranks. She goes about it with a long-term commitment bordering on the insane, garnering all the qualifications necessary to give her a fighting chance, and then waiting 20 years to smuggle herself into the New York command centre, where she’s promptly caught and interrogated.
Thankfully, this male-dominated outfit has retained one woman with decision-making power: Emma Thompson’s veteran Agent O, introduced in the third film, who’s given a couple of weary exchanges about how old-hat the whole “Men in Black” concept feels. She has a counterpart called High T (Liam Neeson), who heads up the UK branch and is Hemsworth’s boss. The film seems on the verge of drawing up battle-lines between the old boys’ axis and the double dose of feminism heading their way, but thinks better of it.
Agent O, in fact, vanishes for an hour, so that the headline stars can simply buddy up in that curiously bromantic way of theirs. Having paired them, the film wafts around the institutional sexism of its universe as little more than a light satirical dusting.
It makes you miss the unexpectedly affecting plot of Men in Black 3 (2012), with its time-travel back to the Apollo 11 mission. There’s nothing comparable here. It’s difficult to care whether Agent H will successfully act as the bodyguard for a visiting alien bigwig, or whether Rebecca Ferguson’s intergalactic arms dealer, who turns out to be H’s ex, is in danger of putting the universe’s most powerful weaponry into the wrong hands. With her pink, black-striped hair and extra arm coming out of her back, she splits the difference between minor Bond villainess and Ragnarok guest-star, encamped on an island off Naples that might as well be one of Saturn’s moons.
The film’s vagueness about its settings – we spend a lot of time racing past chain restaurants near St Paul’s – gives you a hollow feeling after a while. Yes, it’s cool when Agent M boards a special platform on the New York subway and is whisked in seconds to the London office, but the milking of the “international” idea seems to begin and end with high-speed travel, with no thought given to the actual destinations. Try as it might, this script can’t dig up a single urgent reason to put anyone anywhere – it keeps dishing out pretexts for zippy fun and failing to make them fun in their own right.
Hemsworth can only fall back on his (considerable) default charm, playing a complacent hero whom the film wants to pitch as equal parts Han Solo and 007. The potential of the role peaks early, when he’s fatally poisoned and an alien, possessing the only antidote, talks him into bed; more of this unfolding career as a hapless cross-species gigolo might have been welcome.
No one has any idea what to do with Neeson, whose role has surely been abridged since the racism scandal four months ago. He just hangs around mutely, for thoroughly guessable reasons, while the story spins its wheels. All in all, the film is badly missing Tommy Lee Jones’s sangfroid. Men in Black remains synonymous with that deadpan face, telling you with barely a flicker that you didn’t see what you clearly just saw.
There are definite compensations: Thompson’s Agent M has a reliably helpful air of wanting to get on with it, looking hot-to-trot in all the bits of business she’s given, while Kumail Nanjiani drums up a modicum of comic verve as a titchy sidekick called Pawny, survivor of some kind of baffling chessboard massacre, who adopts M as his new queen.
But the basic want of ideas keeps bringing Gray’s film to a twitchy standstill. You can sit through it without much complaint, but you won’t need neuralysing to forget the whole thing an hour or two later.