Coming seven years after the last, this fourth Men in Black outing is a lot more fun than you’ve heard but no less deprived of necessity or smarts. Beyond the all new ensemble and switched focal location, not so much has changed with the franchise, which once originated with the Malibu/Marvel comic book series of Lowell Cunningham. Inherent cast charisma is still vital in papering over the slacks and cracks that pester the series’ plots and characters, whilst inventive visuals remain valuable in maintaining basic aesthetic engagement. Here, a Phantom Menace tone pervades and Fate of the Furious director F. Gary Gray kind of gets away it.
Whether or not they were ever broached for return – International does retain the previous entries’ composer and executive producer in Danny Elfman and Steven Spielberg – Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are conspicuous only by their absence this time around. A brief portrait painting cameo aside. Indeed, only Emma Thompson’s head honcho Agent O and Tim Blaney’s Frank the Pug offer narrative continuation from 2012’s mediocre third affair and even they are quickly left in the newbies’ dust. Filling the shoes of J and K – or merely shifting the alphabet – instead are Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth and his Ragnarok co-star Tessa Thompson, as Agents’ H and M. He’s the handsome top operative, with a penchant for rogue action; she’s the rookie with a past, who just happens to be his perfect match. Blissfully, camaraderie prevails and there’s little sense of developing romantic intentions between the two – yet. Gray even lets them improvise.
In a brief spot-o backstory atop the film, writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Transformers: The Last Night) quickly sketch out a history for their leads, with M having encountered alien life as a child – in the family comedy about a young black girl Spielberg never made – and H, more recently, having gotten up to some life-changing mischief in Paris. Got it? That’s your lot. The rest of this is pure, footloose entertainment. No strings attached, no need to pay attention. Best if you don’t actually.
Following her early life foray with extraterrestrial existence, the future M has devoted her life to finding and joining the Men in Black she once witnessed neuralyse her parents. As you do. Brief interviews for jobs with the FBI and CIA notwithstanding, it takes all of five cinematic minutes for her to reach MIB head office and pitch the irresistible: ‘I’m smart, I’m motivated, I look good in black’. How could they refuse? Next thing we know and M is on her way to London, on probation but also tasked with uprooting the bad apples rotting the British MIB core. Liam Neeson heads up this sect so draw your own conclusions.
Ultimately, the plot to International‘s a waif and requires no more discussion. It all boils down to securing a big bad McGuffin and getting it away from Neeson whoever the traitor in London’s MIB office happens to be. A to C with a pit stop at B. Along the way, Kumail Nanjiani is a vocal joy as Pawny – the minute alien foot soldier who pledges himself to M, following the death of his Queen – and Rebecca Ferguson is criminally wasted in a stripy wig and diversionary cameo. An extra arm only goes so far with her bland so-called badass and it’s dire straits when you’re upstaged by a title card. Closer to home, Neeson bores in a role he clearly cares not for, while Rafe Spall redeems things somewhat, playing an oddly likeable London office jobsworth. Praise be that Hemsworth and Thompson prove to be so amenable company throughout.
With the odd exotic location – ooh Marrakesh! – added to the normative inner city monochrome, International lives up to its expansionist name well enough and comes directed with easy flow. The comedy is daft but warmly executed and the action low key but efficient. Amid a more competitive blockbuster environment than any of its predecessors had to face, it’s hard not to picture this one getting lost and forgotten but, while it lasts at least, Men in Black: International ticks enough of the right boxes to almost make you forget its faults. Almost.