“Men in Black”? “X-Men”? That’s so 2000s. The trend of summer 2019 is blockbuster franchise reboots with women in the driver’s seat who are sick of being called “men.” In the most discussed moment of “Dark Phoenix,” Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven snaps, “You might wanna think about changing the name to X-Women.” And in “Men in Black: International,” Emma Thompson and Tessa Thompson share a cringe over the secretive alien-fighting organization’s outdated name. Unfortunately, we can’t call this kind of half-hearted shoehorning as coming even close to “feminist,” but we see your effort, Hollywood. The actual work is casting Tessa Thompson in the role of a funny, whip-smart, ahem, Person in Black.
In fact, Thompson is what makes this otherwise completely unnecessary reboot work. It’s unclear why we needed a fourth “Men in Black” film seven years after the last one, besides that the property exists and copyrights were likely about to expire. Still, it helps that they’ve cleaned the slate entirely, making way for stars like Thompson and Chris Hemsworth to don the suits and sunglasses.
Clearly, Thompson and Hemsworth are a dynamic duo, as proven in “Thor: Ragnarok.” This is likely due to Thompson being the only young star in Hollywood whose charisma not only stands up to Hemsworth’s, but actually outshines the charming blond Aussie hunk. In the role of Molly, a young girl obsessed with aliens after a childhood encounter and who goes on to chase her dream of joining the Men in Black, Thompson steps into a far more comedic role than the ones in which we’ve seen her. And she is more than up to the task.
Directed by F. Gary Gray and written by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, “Men in Black: International” has a decidedly retro ’90s feel. It has the energy of one of those breezy big summer movies of the late 20th century that went down easy like an ice-cold soda on a hot summer day. Some laughs, some action, very little thinking. This international romp peppered with aliens is tightly plotted, but it has a loose comedic timing. Unfortunately, it is, of course, saddled with 20 unnecessary minutes of computer-generated visual noise tacked onto the end for higher stakes or something. Double crosses, end-of-the-world-type stuff. Feel free to dip out around minute 95.
In what could otherwise be just another bland action comedy sprinkled with sci-fi, “Men In Black: International” has a few secret weapons stashed, like the laser blasters Agent H (Hemsworth) pulls out of every nook and cranny in his extraterrestrial taxi. One is, of course, the weapons-grade charm of Thompson and Hemsworth. The second is Kumail Nanjiani, who voices a tiny alien named Pawny the pair pick up in Marrakech, and who pledges fealty to Agent M (Thompson). As a miniature sidekick, he becomes a crucial element. Not only to the team, but to the film’s overall humor and silliness, which is an important task.
Despite the nagging questions about whether or not we really needed a new installment of the “Men in Black,” “International” makes its case with a troika of winning stars, a breakneck pace and a tone that never takes itself too seriously, which means you don’t have to either. It’s more fun that way anyway.
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