After 10 years it’s tough to imagine “Men in Black III” having any kind of meaningful impact on audiences. No one has spent 10 years clamoring for another entry after “Men in Black II” disappointed — at least no one who would go on the record publicly. Yet despite no attachments to the series but a distant fond memory of men in black suits with goofy silver guns dropping aliens and one-liners, this long-delayed third outing is actually good.
It’s a head-scratcher for even the most open and embracing blockbuster junkies among us. Will Smith, despite a four-year hiatus from acting, is still himself, Tommy Lee Jones is definitely still himself, and new addition Josh Brolin is … Tommy Lee Jones, to a T. A time travel plot also sounds more like an excuse to keep a franchise going rather than the winning story that warrants plucking a franchise off the shelf and dusting it off.
And maybe that’s just it. The big secret with “Men in Black III” managing to entertain could be that there’s not a whole lot of time needed to re-acclimate. The Smith/Jones dynamic (not to mention the black guy/white guy and hip young guy/curmudgeonly old guy dynamics) is a familiar one no matter how many miles it has on it, and director Barry Sonnenfeld has made it work before.
Then there’s the story. No praise need be heaped on writer Etan Cohen, but the circumstances and the stakes are clear and easy to follow, and because these characters are so easy to ingest, we feel the stress as Agent J must go back in time to save his partner and the world.
“Men in Black III” opens with an alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, who has proven to be more than adept at villainy) escaping from a maximum-security prison on the moon. Bitter about being locked up for 40 years at the hands of Agent K (Lee Jones), the man who also took his arm, he endeavors to go back in time and kill off his captor. When he succeeds, suddenly everything in the future changes as if K never existed, only for some reason (the script isn’t too clever at avoiding allusions as to why) J is the only one aware of his disappearance.
Flash forward through all that until J goes back to New York in July 1969, as not much matters (or is interesting) until then, though it’s clear that not only does K’s life need saving, but also his altered death means that anything he ever did never happened, including the construction of a defense field around Earth to protect it from an alien invasion at the hands of Boris’ race, the Boglodites.
In 1969 we meet young Agent K, a performance from Brolin that forces you to remind yourself you’re watching Brolin, not a young Jones. Although working closely with K jeopardizes his mission, the jig is up fairly quickly and the two must work together to make sure all goes as it needs to in order to fix Boris’ chronological crime. It helps that they have a little help from a multi-dimensional being named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a lovable fellow who sees infinite outcomes at once and brings an interesting and rather unexpected perspective into the movie.
The race to stop Boris is the heartbeat of the film, as the humor ranges from flat and stupid to clever but not really laugh-out-loud funny. Much of it is familiar to the series, like when J and K try to get an alien to talk by removing his (removable) head and bowling with it. Clever and familiar, but not exactly ingenious.
The alien design, which has a reputation of cleverly hiding the alien-like features of the aliens and revealing them in a startling way, doesn’t go too overboard in this third movie, which is oft a criticism of the second. Boris, whose body appears human but is sort of covered in venus fly traps, is a clever invention, and many of the others are up to snuff thanks to makeup guru Rick Baker, who worked the first two films as well.
The film isn’t very good at disguising its big reveals, but you’re never quite sure how it’s going to come together, and it keeps moving for the most part, never getting bogged down with explanations of time travel. In fact, when young K first learns J is from the future, he kind of shrugs. Rather an explain things for us again or have K deny J and call him crazy for 15 minutes, true to the K character and convenient for us, he accepts it and moves.
Although it’s easy to follow and we understand what must be done, that doesn’t mean we have to care about it, and that’s the clincher in terms of “MIB3’s” success. After 10 years, I expected not to care less about the strains in J and K’s relationship of late or whether Earth is saved from an angry race of venus fly trap people, but there’s a chemistry with Smith, Jones and Brolin that’s likely to convince us all otherwise, and it makes “Men in Black III” one of the biggest surprises of 2012.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Written by Etan Cohen, Lowell Cunningham (comic)
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement