With Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement. Written by Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, Michael Soccio. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content. 106 minutes.
It’s been a decade since “Men In Black II,” one of those sequels that has largely been forgotten. (See also – or rather, don’t see also – movies like “The Fly II” or “Ghostbusters II.”) MEN IN BLACK 3 is an attempt to resuscitate the series by focusing on what made the 1997 original fun: the relationship between veteran agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and newcomer agent J (Will Smith) as they track down rogue aliens on Earth.
Interestingly, Jones is barely in the film, appearing in just a few scenes at the beginning and then at the end. What makes the film work is a marvelous performance by Josh Brolin as a younger 1969 version of K. The burden was on him to make us believe that he would turn into the already established character created by another actor, and he joins the pantheon of Robert DeNiro (as Don Corleone in “The Godfather, Part II”) and Ewan McGregor (as Obi-wan Kenobi in the otherwise unwatchable “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”) in pulling off this delicate task.
The story begins in the present where Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from prison. He is an ugly and dangerous alien thanks to makeup wizard Rick Baker’s creative special effects. Boris plans to return to 1969 – where K shot off his arm and defeated him – to change history. When K disappears from the present, J goes back to 1969 to try to set things right.
As befits a summer popcorn movie, one isn’t expected to take the proceedings too seriously. When the agents show up at The Factory to confront artist/impresario Andy Warhol (Bill Hader), we know that we’re going to have fun with this “Back to the Future” ride to the ‘60s. Consider this “Men In Black” meets “Mad Men.” At one point, J is pulled over by two racist cops who believe that a black man in a flashy car must have stolen it. He points out that that isn’t the case – except that in the instant case he has stolen the car although he intends to return it. There are also some fun references to things as varied as the New York Mets, Apollo 11, and various retro-technology.
Smith and Brolin build up a nice rapport, neatly mirroring the Smith/Jones relationship in the earlier films. Rip Torn (who played agency head Z) is missed, although the agency is now run by Agent O, played nicely by Emma Thompson. Although this is not deep dish science fiction, the four (!) screenwriters let the time travel paradoxes play themselves out, helped by the character of Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has the ability to see various probabilities of the future.
“Men In Black 3” has laughs, thrills, special effects, and some entertaining by-play with Smith and Brolin. It won’t change your life nor will it boggle you with its concepts. However, if you let it, this is a movie prepared to entertain. If you’re expecting any more from an early summer season blockbuster, you’re going to be disappointed.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.