'Men In Black International' set visit: Two Marvel stars aim to reinvigorate the franchise

Ben Falk
Chris Hemsworth (H) with M (Tessa Thompson) in Marrakech in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. (Sony Pictures)

It’s been seven years since Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones last put on their shades for Men in Black 3 and more than two decades since the first film came out back in 1997. But now Agents J and K are gone, replaced by Chris Hemsworth (as H) and Tessa Thompson (M) in a spin-off which expands the MiB universe and aims to relaunch the franchise.

The production will soon be heading to the Amalfi Coast and Marrakech (site of the hoverbike chase you get a taste of in the trailer), but today (August 2018) cast and crew – and Yahoo – are standing on an East London street in the aftermath of an alien battle, recreated inside a large soundstage at Leavesden studios. Meanwhile, two Marvel stars fire large silver laser guns at nothing, occasionally ducking imaginary debris.

“It’s not a reboot or a remake, it’s a continuation of what’s been before,” explains Hemsworth, during a break in the intergalactic fracas. “We’ve had such a great foundation we just have to not screw it up.”

New recruit

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) riding the Marrakesh Hyperloop in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. (Sony Pictures)

Anyone who’s seen Thor: Ragnarok will know how good chemistry is between Hemsworth and Thompson. After becoming friends on that set they talked about what else they could work on (“We joked about remaking The Bodyguard,” says Tessa) and Men in Black: International felt like the perfect fit.

“I love the originals,” says Hemsworth. “I thought it was an opportunity to take something that was familiar and do our own version of it.”

Read more: Men In Black: International first trailer

“I think we traded a text message or email [about doing it together],” continues Thompson. “I play a new agent who instead of being recruited by the Men in Black has found the Men in Black and we end up together on mission.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 10: Actors Tessa Thompson (L) and Chris Hemsworth at The World Premiere of Marvel Studios' 'Thor: Ragnarok' at the El Capitan Theatre on October 10, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

“[When Tessa’s character] is a 7-year-old, something happens and the MiB come to visit,” explains executive producer E. Bennett Walsh. “Her parents are neuralised, but she isn’t. She’s obsessed with trying to find [the Men in Black].”

Hired by MiB New York boss Emma Thompson (a holdover from the initial trilogy), she is soon dispatched to the bureau’s London branch.

“For my character M, she’s someone that for whatever reason has felt like she doesn’t belong and she has an experience as a young child that makes her interested in this organisation,” adds Thompson. “I think what she’s really after is sense of belonging.”

How the world works

MIB agents in the MIB London office in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (Sony Pictures)

Like Hemsworth says, this isn’t about retconning the narrative or pretending the Smith/Lee Jones storyline didn’t exist.

Instead, it simply takes place in the present day and reveals that the MiB is in fact a global concern, with offices all over the world connected by a secret, high-speed subway called the Hyperloop (Elon Musk cameo confirmed?).

Once H and M team up, they are faced with a number of potentially apocalyptic problems – a mole in the organisation, a three-armed interplanetary arms dealer called Riza (who also happens to be H’s ex) played by Rebecca Ferguson, a pair of identical assassins comprised of pure energy (French model-dancers Les Twins) and a gadget called the Triple D, which is essentially a pocket black hole.

That may sound complicated, but at its heart, the concept is pretty simple. “I always say that the Men in Black films are cop movies,” says producer Walter Parkes, who helped birth the franchise. “It’s in the merging of the hardboiled cop movie and the imaginative science fiction that we have our special place in the universe.”

That MiB look

Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) in London's MIB Headquarters in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (Sony Pictures)

They do wear the suits. And the glasses. But while the design of the original series was inspired by 60s modernism, Walter Parkes says the London office is more 1940s art deco. “We’re staying in the realm of making this distinct architectural choice, but we’re freshening it up,” he says.

The currently-half-finished office set (which in the movie is hidden in plain sight inside a poky corner London pub) still has that airport terminal feel. At one end there’s a large ball structure that will house boss High T’s (Liam Neeson) office, while at the other, the escalators up from Canary Wharf station will be digitally inserted.

Read more: Hemsworth was ‘exhausted’ with Thor

It’ll be populated by some of the 100 new prosthetic aliens, which, according to make-up and hair designer Jeremy Woodhead, will “keep to the vernacular of the original in some ways” with “echoes and memories of what’s gone before” while being fresh and new.

Mail and File Delivery Person in the MIB NY office in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. (Sony Pictures)

Once the duo head off to Europe, there’s an even cooler Mediterranean vibe. Riza lives in a beautiful villa cut into the side of an island off the coast of Italy. The interior is recreated at Leavesden – there’s a tree in the middle of the house and real vegetation planted all around.

As for the weaponry, director F. Gary Gray (Fast & Furious 8, Straight Outta Compton) wanted things to be shiny. “I get a chance to be a kid again,” he laughs, “have some fun with the toys.”

So yes, the neuraliser will return, as will an arsenal of chrome. As Hemsworth and Thompson attempt to fend off the baddies on their fake London street, the newbie discovers various parts of their car house more than just an exhaust pipe or wing mirror.

Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and Agent M (Tessa Thompson) in London for Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. (Sony Pictures)

“There’s a Tommy gun, a laser version of that which is pretty epic,” smiles Hemsworth, who spends a lot of time in the scene whooping and hollering like some kind of be-suited cowboy, while firing CGI bullets at something.

21 Alien Street

Arriving at this point has been a while in the making. Back in 2014, word broke of plans for a crossover between Men in Black and 21 Jump Street. Scripts were written and a director was hired.

An MIB agent in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. (Sony Pictures)

“It’s one of those ideas that when you first hear it, it’s almost like a marketing executive’s dream,” reveals Parkes.

“But when you really come down to it, the two franchises [operate] on very different principles. Jump Street kind of takes ordinary undercover cop ideas and plays them as big and broad and goofy as you can… Men In Black takes very exotic, almost absurd situations of science-fiction and plays them straight. So I thought, from the very beginning, that that was going to be a tough one to pull off, because I thought the tone of the two movies were very, very different. But it was certainly something we tried.”

Read more: Men In Black Jump St film shelved

But while this new version is more of a tentpole FX blockbuster, as well as what someone on-set describes as a road movie, the success of Men in Black is mostly down to how much we care about the people wearing those noir threads.

“It’s a buddy comedy,” admits Parkes. “At the end of the day, what really made [the first movies] was the relationship between J and K as embodied by the chemistry between Will and Tommy.”

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in publicity portrait for the film 'Men In Black II', 2002. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

You’re highly unlikely to be seeing any cameos from those guys and the producers didn’t actively reach out to them. “I know [original director] Barry [Sonnenfeld] has [given his blessing],” says exec producer Walsh.

Instead, the pressure rests on the not-insubstantial shoulders of Hemsworth and Thompson.

“My character’s a little unhinged, a little nutty,” says the Aussie star. “He certainly has a style and way of doing things which is pretty unorthodox. He sort of gets away with it because he gets results and because of his close relationship with his boss and mentor figure. That bumps against M’s approach…it’s a sort of head versus heart vibe. They definitely clash.”

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) in Morocco in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. (Sony Pictures)

And for any of you concerned the filmmakers might attempt to water down that central relationship by introducing a romantic element, don’t worry.

“It’s against company policy,” deadpans Thompson. “He’s a friend from work.”

Men in Black: International will be in cinemas worldwide from 14 June.