Every so often a movie gets so thoroughly shellacked by critics that, when you see it and realize it's actually quite good, you can't help but feel sorry for the filmmakers who are getting the bad rap. "Men in Black: International" — which at the time of this writing has a dismal 25 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes — falls into that category: It's a fun romp that the whole family can enjoy even as it maintains the standards of the original series. Alas, at the time of this writing it seems destined to be written off as a failure because of its poor standing among critics and consequently likely underperformance at the box office.
A soft reboot if there ever was one, "Men in Black: International" takes place in the same universe as the original "Men in Black" trilogy but tells a standalone story. When a little girl named Molly (Mandeiya Flory) discovers a furry blue alien in her room and sees the titular Men in Black wipe her parents' memories with a neuralyzer to conceal its existence, she becomes determined to join the secretive organization and discover the truth about mankind's place in the universe. Twenty years later the adult Molly (Tessa Thompson) locates the Men in Black's secret New York City headquarters, convinces leader Agent O (Emma Thompson) to recruit her as Agent M and is eventually paired with Agent H/Henry (Chris Hemsworth) in the London headquarters led by High T (Liam Neeson) to root out a traitor in the organization and prevent an evil extraterrestrial species from destroying the planet.
This is a standard plot for a "Men in Black" movie, but there are two qualities that distinguish "Men in Black: International" as it tells its story. The first is that it does so without Will Smith as Agent J or Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K, the protagonists of the original trilogy. Indeed, aside from Agent O (who first appeared in "Men in Black 3") and a handful of cameo characters (like Tim Blaney's Frank the Pug), none of the original characters appear in this story. The producers' goal was obviously to separate the "Men in Black" franchise from the star power of Smith and Jones to see if it could hold up on its own as a science fiction/comedy franchise. Given that "Men in Black" was based on a Malibu/Marvel comic book series (Lowell Cunningham's "The Men in Black") and had a successful animated show from 1997 to 2001 (one that included Agents J and K without Smith and Jones to play them), this was a worthwhile endeavor.
The second distinction of "Men in Black: International" — and the reason why it works so well — is that it attempts to develop its own tone rather than mimicking that of the first movie. The original "Men in Black" film in 1997 was memorable because of the offbeat comic sensibilities of director Barry Sonnenfeld (best known at the time for "Get Shorty" and a pair of "Addams Family" movies) and the charisma of Smith himself, who at that point had only recently emerged as a movie star after the successes of "Bad Boys" in 1995 and "Independence Day" in 1996. It also felt slyly subversive because it had been released in 1997, during an era when summer movies had entered a rut of brainless over-reliance on gimmicks and special effects (the Nostalgia Critic has a great video explaining the "dark age" of summer movies from the late 1990s and early 2000s), and it felt impressive because it didn't sacrifice intelligent storytelling, character development and world-building just so it could become a blockbuster.
Unfortunately the 2002 sequel, "Men in Black II," did not live up to the promise of the first movie, falling flat as it strayed from the original's satiric roots to serve up pandering fan service and the exact type of mindless action set pieces that the first movie had rightly ridiculed. "Men in Black III" in 2012, on the other hand, was a return to form, with a smart script that added a surprisingly touching subplot to the franchise's traditional tongue-in-cheek comedy and cerebral science fiction. It also made the somewhat risky choice to substitute Jones with Josh Brolin in the role of Agent K for most of the running time (thanks to a time travel storyline that sent Smith's Agent J back to 1969), and one of the charms of "Men in Black III" is seeing Brolin flawlessly impersonate Jones' famously laconic and surly character. That performance and the unexpectedly poignant story moment, in a way, epitomize what worked about "Men in Black III" — it built on the formula that made the first "Men in Black" work rather than simply trying to recapture it.
In a similar way, "Men in Black: International" feels like a natural evolution from "Men in Black III." While it also contains the quirky sense of humor and brainy science fiction of the original movie, it infuses its own unique thematic elements into the series rather than simply copying what worked in 1997. First there is Thompson's Agent M, who unlike the jaded protagonists from the original three movies is a determined idealist living out a childhood dream. Since it stands to reason that a group like the Men in Black would eventually attract members who are passionate about extraterrestrial life — and since Agent M's enthusiasm makes her an effective avatar for audience members who grew up with the original movies as children — her inclusion, and Thompson's earnest portrayal of the character, gives "Men in Black: International" an endearing charm.
Hemsworth's Agent H is also, thankfully, not a mere clone of either Agent J or Agent K. The premise with Agent H is that he was a formerly top-notch agent who has mysteriously lost his way and started to become inept, insensitive and something of a liability on the job. While it's unlikely anyone in the audience will actually believe that he's the mole everyone is looking for, despite the script's repeated attempts to make him into a convincing red herring, it's still refreshing to see a "Men in Black" protagonist whose job-related shortcomings can't be summed up with the word "rookie." Agent H is, if anything, so used to being good at his job that his character arc requires him to learn some humility in order to figure out what's going wrong. (Also: if you're familiar with Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters, you'll easily be able to figure out the identity of the traitor on your own.)
One can't comprehensively review "Men in Black: International" without noting the unique chemistry between Thompson and Hemsworth in the lead roles. The pair were first united onscreen in 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok," one of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although they play very different characters this time around — Thompson isn't an angry alcoholic and Hemsworth isn't a wisecracking royal — they've retained the same chemistry that made them work so well together in that movie. One hopes to see them paired off in future films, not the least of which would be future "Men in Black" sequels.
Is "Men in Black: International" a masterpiece? No, but then again, it isn't trying to be. If one had to rank the "Men in Black" movies, this one is miles better than "Men in Black 2," not quite as good as "Men in Black" and roughly on par with "Men in Black III." Like that film, it seems to realize that it will never be able to recreate the unique conditions that made the first "Men in Black" into an unexpected pop culture milestone, so instead settles on simply telling a ripping good yarn within that larger universe.