Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men In Black”)
Written by: Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”)
Released in 1997, the first “Men In Black” was a breezy, quirky summer movie hit that succeeded in blending an original, humor-and-alien-laden script with big-budget action and special effects. In the process, it also confirmed Will Smith’s mega-star status after he starred the year prior in the blockbuster hit “Independence Day.” Of course a follow-up was a no-brainer, and everyone’s worst instincts took over. Infected with deadly sequel-bloat, 2002’s “Men In Black II” was a half-baked mess, an empty collection of CGI strung together by a limp screenplay that seemed more concerned with expanding minor kid-friendly jokes from the first film into full-fledged main characters than recapturing the satirical edge that made the original so enjoyable. What was once a promising franchise had been spectacularly mishandled, and when years went by with the summer movie season being ceded to comic book superheroes, the world at large figured the series had been left for dead. Never underestimate the power of an established name brand in Hollywood. No matter how creatively compromised, there’s always room to make money.
Directed once again by Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men In Black 3” opens deep within the walls of a lunar prison built to house dangerous intergalactic biker-ish criminal Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, one half of Flight of the Conchords). With the help of a beautiful woman and a cake concealing a spidery/crabby cohort, Boris is able to escape and set in motion his plan to seek revenge on the man who locked him up and took his arm: Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). When K’s partner Agent J (Will Smith) learns Boris’ plan involves traveling back in time to kill K before he can deploy a planetary defense system, J jumps back to 1969 just before Boris’ arrival. J’s plan goes awry, however, when a young Agent K (Josh Brolin) apprehends him, forcing J, once again, to break through his future partner’s stoic demeanor in an effort to save the planet.
While this second sequel is easy to dismiss sight unseen, taking into account how much the last movie missed the mark and the fact that these characters have been in a deep freeze for 10 years, the end result is surprisingly enjoyable. “MIB 3” effectively ignores the second film entirely, with nary a mention of K’s five-year hiatus as a postmaster or Frank the Welcome-Wearing-Out Talking Bulldog. Instead, it tosses us directly into the day-to-day duties of K’s and J’s decade-and-half partnership as if they never missed a beat. While Jones comes off a little tired and disinterested (and really, his role is more or less a cameo), Smith seems invigorated by being back in the action/comedy/sci-fi saddle. Being the fish out of water suits Smith well and the movie really kicks into gear when he arrives in 1969. Credit Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”) for not shying away from the perils an outspoken, well-dressed black man would face in the late-‘60s, especially when he’s driving a stolen car and carrying a weapon. The real standout, though, is Josh Brolin’s killer take on Agent K. Perfectly matching the cadence and demeanor of Tommy Lee Jones, Brolin makes the perfect foil to the wizened Smith, evoking with a wink the relationship established in the first film that made the characters so appealing. Clement also shines as the menacing, slightly-underwritten Boris, especially when he’s given the chance to dole out some trademark deadpan humor. And a cameo by SNL’s Bill Hader as Andy Warhol flies in the face of what you’d expect and brings big laughs in the process.
So whip out the neuralizer, zap away all memories of the second movie, and enjoy the film as the satisfying “Men In Black” follow-up adventure we should have gotten years ago.