Touching down in 1997, Barry Sonnenfeld's Men In Black landed amidst the second wave of UFOlogy. An affectionate wink at conspiracy paranoia stoked by The X-Files and early dial-up internet, it proved both dapper and disarming; funny, with a sinister edge. But zeitgeist-y as it undoubtedly was, MIB’s masterstroke lay with the unexpected chemistry of its leading men. Will Smith’s wisecracking Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan Agent K proved a potent combination — albeit one that burned bright and faded away, neither sequel capturing it to the same effect.
Alas Smith and Jones, however, because 22 years on, Agents J and K have long since passed into legend, referenced here only as an office painting depicting their greatest victory. In their place we are presented with Agents M and H, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth reuniting the team that stormed the Devil’s Anus in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. Head Agent O (Emma Thompson) is this time joined by High T (Liam Neeson), head of the London office, who tasks the heroes with… something that hardly matters. The plot here, served up by Iron Man screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, is superfluous, existing primarily to shepherd the duo from one location to the next as they acquire (then lose) an experimental piece of alien tech.
Hemsworth and Thompson spark off each other with an easy familiarity.
But where this MacGuffintron 3000 is presented as the story’s secret weapon, Hemsworth and Thompson are undoubtedly the film’s. Having honed his comedy chops in Vacation, Ghostbusters and, most recently, Avengers: Endgame, Hemsworth is allowed to run riot here, bouncing off his equally adept co-star in scenes loosely shot by director F. Gary Gary to encourage the same easy improv that worked so well in Ragnarok. Whether its trading sneery jibes with MIB jobsworth Agent C (Rafe Spall), or — in a post-fight sulk — communicating through a pint-sized intermediary (Kumail Nanjiani’s sidekick, Pawny — a notable upgrade over Frank the pug), the pair are an unalloyed delight, sparking off each other with an easy familiarity.
The lack of anything approaching a consistent straight man (Neeson's po-faced T rarely strays from the office) lets the film embrace its dappy humour without constraint — whether in conversations with a sentient beard, a title card announcing “Riza’s Fortified Fortress Of For Sure Death”, or riffing on the first film's chrome-plated arsenal by stripping down a vintage Jag for plasma-spewing gun parts.
The usual assortment of aliens (MIB’s chain-smoking worm guys make a brief cameo) provide background colour but with Rick Baker’s wild creations now replaced by bland CGI, few stand out. Rebecca Ferguson, meanwhile, is criminally underused as H’s extraterrestrial ex: a three-armed arms dealer whose brief appearance in a zebra-striped wig is over before it’s begun.
Coming seven years after the humourless MIB3 and blessed with neither of its stars, Men In Black: International arrives as possibly the least essential film of the summer. And yet, despite a throwaway story and slightly indulgent runtime (Sonnenfeld never strayed far from the 90-minute mark), H&M prove surprisingly engaging company. Part soft reboot, part extended gag reel, this never takes off as a sci-fi mystery, but thanks to another powerfully appealing central combo, there’s more than enough goofy fun to save you reaching for the neuralyzer.