Movie Review: Men in Black 3

First, let me apologize for the lack of content lately. Had a family vacation that took up some time and prohibited me from attending some screenings. But this week we’re going to get back into the swing of things. In addition to this, I’ll have my thoughts on Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz in a few days, hopefully a new “Trailer Park” and on Friday my thoughts on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Until then, enjoy! 

In “Men in Black 3,” Agent J (Will Smith) goes back in time to stop a chain of events that will otherwise erase his partner K (Tommy Lee Jones) from existence.

If only he made a stop in 2002 on the way back and erased “Men in Black 2” from existence. . . .

But while Barry Sonnenfeld’s sequel to the 1997 franchise-starter was an flat, dreadful disaster, this trilogy capper is a surprisingly clever and funny entry that also manages to introduce that most alien of elements into the saga: emotion.

The story opens with a suitably over-the-top, comic book-inspired escape from a lunar prison that holds vicious criminal Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), who K caught after a string of murders in 1969, where he also blasted off Boris’ right arm. Boris, who shoots deadly darts and alien crabs from his palms, rightly misses his appendage and wants his revenge. So he acquires a time travel device, travels back to 1969 and kills K, erasing him from existence.

The only one knows about this is J, who also locates the time travel device and heads back to before Boris’ arrival, where he tracks down young K (Josh Brolin). The duo, along with Griffin, an alien who can see all possible directions the future might take (Michael Stuhlbarg), tries to stop Boris from killing K and taking over the world.

The original “Men in Black” was a deadpan, extraterrestrial update of the “Ghostbusters” formula. It was an inventive, funny addition to a genre that tends toward self-seriousness. It was bursting at the seams with ideas and powered by the leads’ considerable chemistry and Sonnenfeld’s light, cheeky tone.

Rather than expand the universe for the second go-round, “Men in Black 2” rehashed the first one, piling on an amnesia subplot and revisiting old jokes, such as the idea that most of the world’s celebrities are aliens (the Michael Jackson cameo was particularly painful). It was a joyless, flat and miserable misfire that lacked the originality, charm and wit of the first.

Perhaps rightly sensing that the Men in Black had already covered all possible alien jokes, the film simply accepts the premise and focuses more on the new addition of time travel. I do miss the straight-faced wit of the original, which is replaced here with giant action sequences and broader comedy, but the franchise regains its energy by joyfully zipping through all of the complications and absurdities time travel brings with it.

Smith has been missing from the screen since 2008’s dreadful one-two punch of “Hancock” and “Seven Pounds,” and his charisma has definitely been missed. Although there are moments where he mugs a little too much and tries a little too hard to get back to his smart ass persona, for the most part Smith returns to the role with his charm intact. Few movie stars are as genuinely funny and likable as Smith and he has great chemistry with the rest of the cast.

Jones is pushed to the sidelines but his presence is rarely noticed because Brolin, as young K, knocks it out of the park. He perfectly captures Jones’ grizzled growl and sing-song gruffness, and–coupled with his uncanny similarity to a young Jones–the film often feels like Jones has simply been de-aged by the help of computers. I was initially afraid that Brolin’s work would be a one-note joke, but the actor ably captures Jones’ personality and creates a sympathetic K who has yet to become encumbered by the cynicism of old age.

The rest of the cast varies, although no one stinks it up as bad as Lara Flynn Boyle and Johnny Knoxville did in “MIB 2.” Stuhlbarg is a highlight as the ever-awed Griffin, amazed at all the different possible futures presented to him and I really liked Emma Thompson’s brief work as Agent O, the new head of the MIB. Clement has a good time going over the top as baddie Boris, and I really wish we had been given more time with Bill Hader and Will Arnett, who both show up in funny cameos.

Sonnenfeld wisely dials back the volume in this film and doesn’t try to make this into another big summer epic. “Men in Black” films work best as breezy, lightweight comedies and the best moments here are when the film laughs at the absurdity of its premise or coasts on banter between the characters. The action sequences are fine but unremarkable and when the film tries too hard to thrill–I’m thinking of a cycle chase down the streets of New York–it forgets its strengths and kind of flounders.

Surprisingly, for a franchise I had all but given up on, “Men in Black III” has a surprisingly touching and emotional moment at its conclusion that speaks volumes about what likable characters Smith, Jones and Brolin have brought to life and how pleasant it is to see them again.

Pleasant is probably the right word for this film. It’s funny, but not riotous. Its clever, but not brilliant. It’s an enjoyable little piffle that will be forgotten after you leave the theater, a nice little palate cleanser between “Avengers and “Prometheus.” I don’t know if we need an “MIB 4,” but I can’t say I would object to hanging out with J and K again.


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