The best thing about the revamped Men in Black series is actually a woman. Stepping in after three very successful entries starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones for this reboot, Tessa Thompson shines brightly alongside her Thor: Ragnorak co-star Chris Hemsworth as Agents M and H, respectively, who set off to surreptitiously thwart yet another alien assault on world order, such as it is.
In and of itself, this revamp is mildly engaging, but also feels like it’s expending a great deal of energy for quite modest entertainment returns. It will be surprising if this franchise refurbishment comes anywhere close to the muscular box office performances recorded by the earlier installments, the last of which hauled in $624 million worldwide in 2012.
The sometimes bizarre and often deadpan humor of the original trio of pics, which were all directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, has been replaced by an energetic approach from F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) that too often crosses the line into the frantic. Thompson carries with her a poise and center of gravity that prevents her from being caught in the frenzy that has, unfortunately, snared Hemsworth, encouraged to overdo his posturing as a dashing agent who, until now, has never met a dilemma he’s not been able to charm, wriggle or talk his way out of.
Moving the series from its customary New York locale to Paris, London, Marrakesh and Italy, the film neatly introduces Thompson’s Molly as a young Brooklyn girl whose preferred bedtime reading is, tellingly, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and whose exposure to “the other side” qualifies her, in time, to become the first non-recruited member of the secret organization that deals with the invisible side of the earthly realm.
A secret high-speed subway eventually whisks the grown-up Molly to London for a highly unusual job interview, and no one could have been better than Emma Thompson (no relation to Tessa) to be the gatekeeper of the know-it-alls whose well-ordered alternate universe is filled with smarty-pants and technological wonders but no end of intrigue and threats.
Molly, now known only as Agent M, is paired with the frightfully handsome Agent H (Hemsworth), whose ability to slide through any difficulty based on his great looks and glib, fast-talking manner may, for the first time, be meeting with some resistance. At the same time, he deals with his new colleague in a reckless, cavalier fashion that perhaps proves less beguiling than the filmmakers might have intended; H’s aggressively charming posture wears thin perhaps more quickly than expected, and even a difficult face-off with shapeshifting alien foes (played by dancer-choreographer twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, emitting vibes of determined malevolence) doesn’t much moderate the man’s automatic preference for goofing around (he’s always gotten away with it) over serious application.
There’s a determined, more than natural, feel of high energy that propels the action as H and M play hide and seek with the shapeshifting twins from Marrakesh on through the desert. All the while, there is treachery back at the home office, where Agent C (Rafe Spall) is trying to convince big boss High T (ha-ha) that Agent H is sailing along more on his looks and reputation.
To be sure, the film has dash, a measure of style and a worldliness that suits the material. At the same time, it places equally intense attention on everything when some modulation of mood might have been useful. All the same, things pick up in a good way when H&M arrive at the island compound of H’s former flame Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a wily, seductive firecracker in possession of a tremendously destructive weapon, as well as of initially invisible personal powers. Of the assorted supporting players, Ferguson does the most, and has the most fun with limited screen time.
Scenarists Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, who were two of the four writers on the original Iron Man, lay things out in a serviceable way that director Gray gooses up with more than adequate energy. But alongside the captivating composure of Thompson, Hemsworth’s performance feels overly frantic; his Agent H repeatedly testifies to his enduring luck in making things go his way but is unnerved enough to be sweating out the results this time around. He’s charming but ultimately a bit over-the-top. At the same time, the pic’s finale is both overly protracted and lacking in emotion.
Still, this is a fine and unexpected showcase for Thompson, whose poise and composure are notable. This should lead to more, and hopefully varied, film roles.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Les Twins Laurent Bourgeois and Larry Bourgeois
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriters: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, based on the Malibu Comic by Lowell Cunningham
Producers: Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Edward Cheng, E. Bennett Walsh, Riyoko Tanaka, David Beaubaire, Barry Sonnenfeld
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costume designer: Penny Rose
Editors: Christina Wagner, Zene Baker, Matthew Willard
Music: Danny Elfman, Chris Bacon
Visual effects supervisors: Jerome Chen, Daniel Kramer
Casting: David Rubin, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Rated PG-13, 115 minutes