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Arts | Culture

Review: Tessa Thompson aside, ‘Men in Black: International’ is a globe-trotting mediocrity

Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) on the shoulder of Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and with Agent H (Chris Hemswort
Pawny (voied by Kumail Nanjiani) on the shoulder of Agent M (Tessa Thompson), along with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), in “Men in Black: International.”
(Sony Pictures)

The “Men in Black” movies proceed from the notion that creatures from neighboring galaxies walk and slither among us, many of them disguised as human beings. Like its three predecessors — including the still-terrific 1997 original — “Men in Black: International” features an amusing throwaway gag revealing that some of these aliens are, in fact, masquerading as real-life celebrities. If you suspected that Elon Musk was not entirely of this world, your instincts were correct.

The movie itself, a weightless, unmemorable summer distraction, offers its own curious meta-variation on the joke. It certainly looks like a “Men in Black” movie, insofar as it features people in dark suits running around with memory-erasing neuralyzers, trying to protect the secrets of the universe while also keeping those secrets from destroying planet Earth. You will recognize this world the moment you hear the cheekily ominous strains of Danny Elfman’s score (given a tweak this time by composer Chris Bacon) and set eyes on a fresh gallery of computer-generated grotesques.

But the resemblances largely end there. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are nowhere to be seen. The director, F. Gary Gray, and the screenwriters, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, are all new to the series, which you might guess from the movie’s blandly anonymous stylistic imprint. Even during the fun moments — and there are a few, if nowhere near enough — you know you’re in the presence of an impostor, a generic blockbuster wannabe in established franchise drag.

I realize that this specimen is often referred to as a “spinoff” — or reboot, or relaunch, or whatever the preferred terminology is for a movie that sets out to monetize what remains of your pop-cultural nostalgia in service of something (barely) new. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Certainly there are worse reasons for a movie to exist than to provide a starring vehicle for two actors as versatile and likable as Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who take over for Smith and Jones here.

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Emma Thompson (Finalized)
Emma Thompson in “Men in Black: International.”
(Giles Keyte)

You might recall that Hemsworth and Thompson also appeared together in the Marvel spectaculars “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Endgame,” and their on-screen rapport has been at least as consistent as their commitment to colon-punctuated titles. The most pleasurable moments in “Men in Black: International” are those in which the actors get to rediscover some of that chemistry. At one point they bicker like a pair of old 1940s screen idols in front of a desert landscape that, deliberately or not, looks almost as fake as a studio backlot.

It’s a nice moment, though it takes the movie a while to get there, plus a great deal of laborious plotting and cross-cutting. It begins with a ho-hum cliffhanger of a prologue set atop the Eiffel Tower, where H (Hemsworth), a top agent in the Men in Black’s London office, faces off with a malicious swarm of invaders known as the Hive. He soon will find himself paired with a new agent named M (Thompson), a fresh recruit brought in from New York, who has been obsessed with joining the MIB since she caught a surprise glimpse of an alien visitor as a science-obsessed kid 20 years ago.

A familiar dynamic between the cynical veteran and the by-the-book rookie ensues. H has entered a debauched, decadent phase; he drinks too much and indulges in ill-advised cross-species hook-ups, occasioning the memorable sight of tentacle marks across the bulging Hemsworth torso. That makes him ill equipped to mentor M or to protect an alien ally named Vungus (Kayvan Novak), who turns out to be safeguarding a mysterious gem that must not, under any circumstances, fall into the wrong hands.

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Pawny for Columbia Pictures’ MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL.
Kumail Nanjiani voices a character named Pawny in “Men in Black: International.”
(Sony Pictures)

But whose hands are those? There’s a mole at work in the London office, briefly sending the movie down a John Le Carré rabbit hole and raising the promising suggestion that MIB might be as rife with bureaucratic secrets as MI6. The globe-trotting intrigue eventually fans out to include Rebecca Ferguson as an assassin who brings new meaning to the term “heavily armed,” plus Liam Neeson and Rafe Spall as a couple of dark-suited dullards. Neither one rivals the organization’s top leader, Agent O, played by a formidably icy Emma Thompson, reprising her role from “Men in Black 3.” At one point O fixes M with an appraising smirk, perhaps signaling her suspicion that there’s room for only one Thompson in this movie.

She turns out to be happily wrong. A little of Hemsworth’s wasted-golden-boy act goes a long way, but Tessa Thompson, whose star is deservedly on the rise, brings much-needed glimmers of wit, pluck and magnetism to a character who doesn’t amount to much on the page. The screenwriters give M a lot of technical jargon and an eyeroll-inducing exchange with O about how sexist it is that the organization is still called Men in Black — the latest example of a tiresome streak of lip-service feminism that has swept through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney’s “Aladdin” remake and the recent “Dark Phoenix.”

“Men in Black: International” doesn’t need to apologize for the fact that it isn’t some bastion of blockbuster wokeness; simply being a good movie would have been more than enough. But Gray, who has made terrific genre pictures before (like “The Italian Job”), appears to be only marginally more awake here than he was during the long, noisy multiplex nap that was “The Fate of the Furious.” He does give us an endearing second banana named Pawny, a pint-sized, Yoda-esque minion brought to wisecracking life by Kumail Nanjiani. The character may be tiny but his big shtick is hard to resist.

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‘Men in Black: International’

Rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material

When: Opens Friday

Where: Wide release

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Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang


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