What I loved about 1997’s “Men in Black” was it embraced its own corniness. The aliens were over-the-top and blew up like Jello molds; the sets had a distinct comic book feel to them; and the story balanced workplace comedy with fantastical backdrops. The style worked, propelling the film to financial and critical greatness. But I lost all hope when the sequel, “Men in Black II,” dropped in 2002 and turned out to be just a cash grab. However, this summer’s Men in Black III is a surprise return to form that, while flawed, breathes new life to a franchise none expected to make a comeback.
Despite 14 years on the job Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) still aren’t communicating as well as they should be. While they work out the kinks in their relationship, a ruthless alien criminal named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) takes aim at the latter and travels back to 1969 to assassinate his younger incarnate. By doing so, he alters the timeline, changing the Agency and wiping the Arknet, a security system that’s protected the Earth from full-scale alien invasions, from existence. With the present facing catastrophe, J uses his own time machine to venture back to the same year, where he teams up with a 29-year-old K (played by Josh Brolin) and Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an all-knowing fifth dimensional being, to find and defeat Boris before he disrupts the flow of history.
As with any threequel, there are bumps along the way. Written by Etan Cohen (with creative input from David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and Michael Soccio), the screenplay for Men in Black III has some outdated jokes and slang which, given the film’s premise, might’ve worked had they not been so distracting. Fortunately, it also doesn’t go the way of “Dark Shadows” and get hung up on making trite “man out of his time” jokes. In addition, Boris could’ve been handled differently. Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, would’ve been more memorable had his role consisted of more than cheesy motives and maniacal laughter. But, to be fair, it’s always been more about our shade-donning heroes than the villains.
Brolin does an excellent job keeping the duo fresh. Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s (who returns to the helm with a vengeance) crowning achievement was casting the “No Country for Old Men” star, who looks and sounds like fans would imagine a young K to. Most importantly, he has chemistry with Smith. Both actors are visibly enthusiastic and keep us interested even when the story starts to dip. A rather poignant twist at the end (and the closest the franchise has come to heart-wrenching drama) sends K and J’s relationship home and sets the scene for a possible fourth installment — something I’m now definitely excited for.
That’s not to jump ahead of myself — especially not before discussing the superb visual and special effects. Many of the aliens were devised by makeup expert Rick Baker and while there aren’t as many as in previous chapters, the ones shown remain lovably cartoony and maintain that quintessential “Men in Black” aesthetic. So does the final action set-piece, which is set at Cape Kennedy on the day of the first moon landing attempt. However, the added 3D doesn’t add much and remains a superfluous incentive.
And as much as I enjoyed Men in Black III, I could’ve help but notice one glaring omission: Frank, the talking pug. Life, I suppose, must be ruff in the life of canine MIB agents.