In a year when Will Smith plays the genie in a live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin, it really does feel like there are no new ideas in Hollywood. Men in Black: International, a reboot of the Will Smith sci-fi classic, definitely isn’t going to prove that old saying wrong, but it still manages to remix the original movie into a perfectly crafted adventure that somehow manages to surpass its predecessor. Maybe new is overrated.
MIB: International (directed by F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton, The Fate of the Furious) is intensely familiar in the best way possible. The two-hour movie is loaded with Easter eggs and references, not to mention the familiar score and the comforting Spielberg aesthetic that still pours effortlessly out of Amblin Entertainment — everything from the way the camera frames each scene to how the story unfolds somehow feels as cozy as rewatching E.T.
International’s new hero, Tessa Thompson as Agent M, stands in for the audience as a young geek who’s so obsessed with the Men in Black she forces her way into the secret organization. At this point in her career, you’d be a fool to doubt Thompson’s talent, but she more than holds her own against the shadow of Will Smith’s Agent J, playing an awkward fangirl who can’t believe she’s finally been let into the club. She’s somehow even more charming than Smith’s fast-talking jock.
Opposite Thompson is Chris Hemsworth as Agent H, basically playing his Avengers character, Thor, but in a suit instead of the cape and hammer (though he does pick up a tiny hammer in one hilarious fight scene). It took Hemsworth four Marvel movies to convince the studio he could be funny, but here he hits the ground running. We already know Hemsworth as that funny guy with a great smile, and Men in Black: International doesn’t challenge that. It even pairs him with an actor we already know he has chemistry with (Thompson also showed up as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok), so there’s never any doubt the ensemble will work here.
And work it does. Agents M and H are paired up on what should be a routine mission (getting some alien prince drunk at a secret extra-terrestrial club in London). Of course, things quickly go wrong when it turns out that the alien was carrying a weapon of mass destruction in his pocket, attracting the attention of some nasty shapeshifting villains.
Before you know it, Hemsworth and Thompson are setting off on the globetrotting adventure that Men in Black: International promised in its title, aided by Liam Neeson as MIB’s London boss and an adorable little alien named Pawny, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani. Emma Thompson also shows up briefly as the sharply dressed director of the Men in Black’s NY office.
Of this trio of supporting characters, the standout is easily Nanjiani, who delivers his tried and true style of self-effacing humor mixed with sharp insults. It somehow works even better coming out of the mouth of a scaly alien the size of a salt shaker, especially when he’s also wielding a tiny little knife or a pair of grappling hook guns.
Men in Black: International may take a few detours (there’s a whole section of the movie set in the desert, which seems to be a requirement of modern action movies), but eventually, it hits all the same beats as the original. There’s the shady alien arms dealer, the regular-looking car that transforms with the press of a red button, and even the revelation that an iconic piece of architecture has an alien purpose. (Here, the Eiffel Tower was an early port of entry for alien immigrants.)
But despite feeling like a retread of the original, MIB: International somehow surpasses it. Maybe I just went in with low expectations (another Hollywood reboot?), but this movie takes everything the 1992 version did and does it better. It might not feel as gritty as the Will Smith one did, but the world International creates is just as immersive and inviting (I really want to ride the secret MIB bullet train and hang out at the alien club). The story somehow manages to surprise even while being totally predictable, and the characters feel authentic even when they’re lifted whole cloth from previous films.
The only thing missing is Will Smith’s rapping, and, if we’re being totally honest, that’s probably for the best.
Men in Black: International hits theaters on Friday, June 14.