A pair of shapeshifting aliens with electrifying powers and mad breakdancing skills threaten the safety of Earth’s inhabitants in . The fourth installment in the popular franchise hits theaters this weekend, and this iteration is the first not to star Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Fortunately, former co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson prove themselves worthy successors to that dynamic duo, bringing their own brand of wisecracking buddy-cop chemistry to this standalone sequel.
(Some mild spoilers below.)
The first film (1997) was an instant classic and pretty much cemented Will Smith’s status as a mega-star. Smith’s chemistry with co-star Tommy Lee Jones was a sheer delight, and the original was rounded out by an equally terrific cast. Miraculously, the sequel, (2002), was almost as good, and a Hollywood franchise was born, reuniting Smith and Jones one last time with (admittedly the weakest film of the trilogy) in 2012.
The first trailer for dropped last December, showcasing Thompson in the Will Smith role as the talented rookie and foil to Hemsworth’s jaded pro—except instead of being recruited, she seeks out the MiB herself. Somehow she finds the US headquarters of the most secret organization in the world, which, as she points out to uber–posh Agent O (Emma Thompson, reprising her role in ), pretty much makes her perfect for the job. Agent M’s first assignment: trouble is brewing across the pond, and she joins up with London’s MiB International Unit to take on a couple of aliens who like to bust a move at local nightclubs when not causing trouble for the human race. She partners with Agent H (Hemsworth), who is supposedly the best and used to work with Liam Neeson, aka High T, head of the London office. Now he seems primarily occupied with hard partying, napping, and Taco Tuesdays in the cafeteria.
Hemsworth once again displays the comedic chops that made his supporting turn as the beautiful-but-dumb receptionist Kevin in 2016’s such a delight—especially his gift for physical comedy, showcased in key fight scenes. His Agent H is a wise-cracking, rather louche playboy when we meet him. He uses macho bravado to keep the world at bay, and over the course of the film, he must dig deep to become the hero he once was to stave off this latest threat to Earth’s survival. He’s the perfect complement to Thompson’s Agent M. She is whip-smart, ambitious, and not at all cowed by her partner’s superficial swagger, with her own thick protective walls hiding behind logic and intellect.
Director F. Gary Gray has assembled an equally strong supporting cast. Emma Thompson steals every brief scene she’s in with little more than a skillfully arched eyebrow. Rafe Spall brings depth to what might otherwise have been a one-note role as Agent C, H’s would-be rival, whose nebbish demeanor makes him better suited to a desk than active field work (this naturally rankles his pride). I was initially dubious about the cutesy introduction of Pawny (an animated alien chess piece voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), who is befriended by Agents M and H after his queen is killed. But he gets some of the wittiest comebacks, routinely cutting H down to size. Even Pawny ends up being a welcome addition to the team.
As the history of lengthy franchise sequels may lead you to suspect, this is not a perfect film. The plot is predictable and on the thin side, and the final twist is telegraphed far too early on. Luckily, jumping around to various exotic locations keeps things moving at a brisk pace throughout. at least avoids the dizzying time-travel convolutions that marred the third installment in this franchise, plus there are a number of amusing callbacks to the prior films. It all makes for a fun, enjoyable summer ride, and fans of the earlier films won’t be disappointed.