Dir: F Gary Gray; Starring: Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani (voice). Cert 12A, 115 mins

The latest Men in Black film, following seven years after the third film in the franchise and now with a new cast, is an enjoyable romp, which doesn’t take itself seriously at all.

Like X Men: Dark Phoenix, the latest adventure is keen to qualify its own title. “Men in black?”, its heroine, Molly/Agent M (Tessa Thompson) asks sceptically early on. “Don’t start. I’ve had the conversation,” her boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) responds, making it very clear that the traditional gender bias in superhero films is fast becoming obsolete. As we are told several times, this is as much a film about women in black as it is about men.

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The special effects are wildly over the top and just a little bit cheesy. We have the Eiffel Tower glowing like a lava lamp, villains who can cause the ground itself to ripple and dissolve and heroes whose reaction to any given crisis is to reach for the biggest gun available. Chris Hemsworth plays Agent H in the same self-deprecating fashion as he does Thor in the Marvel movies. He may not have the hair, the Nordic flab or the hammer but he wisecracks away throughout the film. At times, as he rushes around in pursuit of the stolen weapon that can destroy the world, he is also like a more energetic version of Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Part of the schtick here is that Agent H is continually upstaged by his smarter partner, Agent M. He sits in the driver’s seat and tries to call the shots but she is generally a step ahead of him. Thompson plays Agent M in tongue-in-cheek fashion, an action heroine far more reliant on wit and ingenuity than on brawn. The most compelling fights are between the two of them as they strive to upstage one another. As in old screwball comedies, the more they bicker, the more apparent their mutual attraction becomes.

Liam Neeson – who was embroiled in a racism controversy earlier this year – is well cast as the big boss, High T, delivering the most corny lines with his familiar Moses-like gravitas and acquitting himself well in his occasional action scenes too. There is strong support from Rafe Spall as the smirking, deskbound Agent C, who is both jealous of Agent H’s feats in the field and deeply suspicious of his methods.

Director F Gary Gray (whose very varied previous credits include Straight Outta Compton and Fast & Furious 8) is far more interested in serving up harum-scarum action and comedy than in providing a smoothly grained storyline. There are lots of bumps in the road here and many random shifts in both tone and location.

The film opens in Paris in 2016 with High T and Agent H taking on the shape-shifting aliens from the Hive on top of the Eiffel Tower. The story then lurches back 20 years in time to Brooklyn, where Molly, a precocious young kid who reads Stephen Hawking books instead of comics, catches her first glimpse of the Men in Black. She is determined to join their ranks. This, though, is a shadowy organisation with very particular recruitment methods. It takes Molly fully two decades to wheedle her way into the outfit – and even then, she is only on probation. She is assigned to be H’s partner. He, though, prefers to work alone. He is the poster boy of the organisation but something is gnawing away at him. His traumatic experiences in Paris and his fiery romance with Riza (Rebecca Ferguson in Ab Fab mode), a slithery but very glamorous alien femme fatale with many arms, have somehow warped his personality.

Plotwise, the film teeters on the edge of absurdity throughout. The main action concerns attempts to get hold of a tiny jewel-like ornament which can be transformed into the most powerful weapon in the universe.

The filmmakers choose a strange mixture of humdrum and exotic locations for their big action set-pieces. An early shoot out takes place on a busy London street outside the local branches of Eat and All Bar One. However, we are quickly whisked from there to the Marrakech Souk and on to an exotic island castle somewhere in southern Italy. Along the way, H and M pick up a sidekick, a tiny green alien named Pawny (voiced by The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani). His queen is dead and he pledges squeaky voiced allegiance to Molly instead.

The screenplay by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway doesn’t pay much attention to the aliens. French dancers Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois play identical alien twins who are desperate to get hold of the secret weapon but we learn very little about them. Every so often, the Hive aliens will take over a human body and it will then be up to the men (and women) in black to zap it out of existence.

One of the film’s most engaging traits is its absolute inanity. It is not trying to hold up a dark mirror to humanity and to make points about pollution, destruction or political persecution. Instead, the main intention is to serve up chases, slapstick and knockabout comedy. Many Hollywood blockbusters are dragged down by their own bombast but this film has a lightness and carefree quality throughout. It is also instantly forgettable. Audiences may feel as if they’ve been instantly “neuralysed” (the process by which the Men in Black erase people’s memories) after watching it but the experience is fun while it lasts.

Men in Black: International is in cinemas from 14 June

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