Movie review: 'Men in Black III' (VIDEO/AUDIO)
In a world where big-budget, special effects-heavy summer movies tend to be stultifying and more intimidating than entertaining, “Men in Black III” bucks the trend.
This long-delayed sequel reuniting Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as alien-busting federal agents is quick, breezy and at times delightful.
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Part three arrives a full decade after the poorly received “Men in Black II,” which usually suggests low demand for another installment. In the run-up to this production I suspect its only cheerleaders were the studio’s executives (always more willing to greenlight a sequel than an original idea) and director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose film career just about evaporated after the second movie. His only big release since was the 2006 Robin Williams bomb “RV.”
According to Hollywood scuttlebutt, the real hold-up for a third “Men in Black” is that Jones wasn’t interested in continuing these films. If that’s true, then the filmmakers found a solution that essentially turns Jones’ character, Agent K, into a sort of timeshare played by another actor, Josh Brolin, for half the film. Dan Aykroyd, whose long-gestating “Ghostbusters III” has been blocked by a balky Bill Murray, might attend “Men in Black III” with notebook in hand.
The gimmick the filmmakers fall back on is time travel, allowing Smith’s Agent J to jump back to 1969 and interact with a younger version of Agent K. Yes, this sounds like a desperate move, jamming the concept of time travel into an established series’ third installment, but it works here because the sequences with Agent J observing and adjusting to 1969 are actually inventive and funny, unlike the man-out-of-time jokes in “Dark Shadows.”
In the present (actually 2009, because the characters constantly refer to events of 40 years earlier) Agents J and K haven’t changed much during their 10-year absence. Stone-faced Kay barely talks, while Jay talks much too much (Smith skirts becoming annoying this time around).
“How did you get to be this way?” Jay asks.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” Kay replies.
Meanwhile, the one-armed alien terrorist Boris the Animal (“Flight of the Conchords” star Jermaine Clement, though you won’t recognize him) escapes from Lunar Max prison on the moon. Agent K captured Boris, destroying his arm in the process, 40 years ago. Boris, who must have seen “The Terminator” while in stir, plots to travel back to 1969 and kill Agent K before they meet.
Apparently he succeeds, because the next day Agent J awakes to a world without Agent K. Not only is Agent K gone, but the Earth is now susceptible to alien invasion. Naturally enough, one is imminent.
Agent J is the only person who remembers his partner, so new Men in Black chief, O (Emma Thompson), sends him back to the day before the Boris affair, July 15, 1969. This is also the day before the Apollo 11 moon launch, so you just know the story will climax at Cape Canaveral.
There isn’t much more to the plot. You probably can find episodes of the 1990s “Men in Black” cartoon with more complicated storylines. Here “Men in Black” follows the course of the “Jurassic Park” films. Both series opened with genuine sensations, followed by dour sequels that angered fans, and were redeemed by lean, no-frills third episodes that cut to the essence of the franchises’ appeal with fast-paced adventures that may not be dazzling, but sure are fun.
In 1969, Agent J encounters an Agent K who is a more gregarious fellow than his old self. As a Men in Black agent, Kay readily accepts Jay’s story of traveling from the future to save him. They protect one of Boris’ targets, an obsequious alien named Griffin who exists in multiple timelines at once. Reminiscent of early Mork from Ork (before he became unbearable), Griffin is played by “A Serious Man” star Michael Stuhlbarg, also unrecognizable.
The agents find Griffin at a party thrown by Andy Warhol (Bill Heder) at his Factory. The obvious gag is that Warhol will be revealed as an alien, as this series usually does with famous nerds and outsiders, but the script goes in another, funnier direction.
Some of the best time travel jokes are supplied by the genius production designer Bo Welch, returning from the first two films. In the 1969 Men in Black headquarters, white Lucite desks are topped with chunky black IBM Selectric typewriters.
The script, which is credited to four writers including rewrite specialist David Koepp stumbles when it tries to inject emotion. Much is made of the event that turned Agent K into a sourpuss, but we never witness it. And a character is introduced near the end to add a tear-jerking twist, but you may never see a clearer example of unearned pathos.
While time travel serves this plot well enough, most of it is derivative, starting like “The Terminator” and ending like “Back to the Future.” Plus, last year’s “Doctor Who” premiere used almost the exact same plot device involving the Apollo 11 launch.
“Men in Black III” has considerable flaws, but it also has considerable charms. One of the biggest is Brolin, with a straight-faced yet hilarious imitation of his “No Country for Old Men” co-star Jones. Another big charm, believe it or not, is the 3-D.
“Men in Black III” appears to be the first live-action movie since “Avatar” expressly designed to be viewed in 3-D. A former cinematographer, Sonnenfeld keeps the images bright and colorful to counter the inevitable dimming of the 3-D glasses. He keeps the frame uncluttered so that our eyes always follow the central action. And he is not afraid to throw objects and aliens – like the enormous fish Agent J fights in a Chinatown restaurant – at the camera.
I suspect people who see “Men in Black III” in 2-D will feel ripped off by the slim story. This is one of the rare times the extra dimension adds to the film.
“Men in Black III”
Rated PG-13 for science fiction action violence and brief suggestive content
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Who’s in it: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson
What it’s about: Agent J (Smith) travels back to 1969 to save his partner Agent K (Jones in the present; Brolin in the past) from being killed by an alien terrorist.