‘Men in Black 3’: Three’s the charm

May 24, 2012


I will admit: I tend to have a bias against movies with the number “3” in the title. If there’s ever a dead giveaway that all imagination has been sapped from a movie, it’s that second sequel (as if the first sequel wasn’t bad enough).

Sure, the filmmaker can say, “Oh, I planned to make it a trilogy all along.” Tell me another.

There are exceptions, but not many of them. Still, I’m willing to add “Men in Black 3” to the very short list of third outings that actually work – better by far than the second film, perhaps even better than the first.

The director once again is Barry Sonnenfeld, but the key player here is one who isn’t even mentioned in the credits. While the writer of record is Etan Cohen, two other (and probably better) writers are listed on IMDB: David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson, both of whom have lengthy lists of strong films on their filmographies.

But, really, I don’t care who gets the credit: The point is that the script is better for this film than either of the previous two. The first one had the disadvantage of being an origin story: trying to tell an actual story, while introducing the universe of the comic books on which it was based. The second one was simply a rehash of the first with a slight twist, bigger special effects and weaker jokes.

But “MIB3” actually has a solid plot, one with credible sci-fi roots and twists but also one with heart. It throws off the jokiness in which this series has been mired to create action and adventure built in service to story, rather than vice versa (as has been Sonnenfeld’s curse as a director).

The film begins with a prison break by an alien known as Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords), who doesn’t appreciate his nickname: “It’s just Boris,” he growls, as he dispatches victims with large, thorn-like stakes that shoot out of his palms. He shows up in New York and grabs a time-travel device that allows him to go back to the day in 1969 when he was captured by a member of the Men in Black corps: Agent K.

In the present, K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) are on Boris’ trail, even as J complains about how emotionally closed-off K remains from his partner. But when Boris jumps into the past, the present undergoes a major change: J wakes up the next morning to discover that K has not only disappeared but that no one except him seems to remember the crusty senior agent.

The only trace of him: a commemorative bust at headquarters, marking his death in the line of duty battling Boris in 1969. Oh yeah – and the invasion from Boris’ planet that threatens to wipe out Earth is imminent, though it was something K had prevented in his original encounter with Boris.

After a bit of exposition with the MIB’s new chief, Agent O (Emma Thompson, very funny but criminally underutilized), J figures out that he has to travel back to 1969 to search for Boris, rescue K and save the Earth.

Thankfully, the script (and, more important, Sonnenfeld) refrains from making a big deal about how silly/groovy 1969 was. Aside from a couple of hippie jokes, the major plot points involve the 1969 New York Mets and the first moon landing, without making a big to-do about how quaint the past seems. There’s even a very clever and tasty sequence involving Andy Warhol and The Factory (kudos to Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live,” who plays Warhol with more than a bit of his Stefon character).

Otherwise, the main reason to hop back in time is to cast Josh Brolin as the young Agent K – in other words, for Brolin to play a young Tommy Lee Jones. And he does – brilliantly so, the same way Rob Lowe channeled Robert Wagner in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Brolin captures Jones’ laconic delivery and steely squint. But he also helps the viewer (and Agent J) imagine what Agent K might have been like before he became the world-weary, terse fellow that Jones embodies.

The film also includes the marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg as an alien who can see all times on the continuum at once, as well as all the possible outcomes for any approaching moment. It’s a clever device, ingeniously deployed – sort of a variation on what Kurt Vonnegut called the chronosynclastic infundibulum in “The Sirens of Titan.” He becomes a valuable ally for K and J – and the target of Boris’ wrath.

Ultimately, what gives “MIB3” its heart is Smith, who has always been the battery that powers these films. It’s not just the action – which is fast, exciting and funny – but the emotional depth he brings. He still is best when reacting to Agent K (Jones, to be truthful, is barely in the movie), but he shows us something more here.

Sonnenfeld is who he is, which means that the film is littered with unnecessary bits of visual bric-a-brac that only slow things down (i.e., his cutaways to period living rooms watching the moon launch during the climactic battle). For a change, however, his reflexively jokey style is held in check.

As a result, “Men in Black 3” may just be a better film than the original, which came out in 1997. I’m as surprised as you are.

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