I have vague recollections of the first two “Men in Black” films. From what I do remember and from what other people have told me, the first film from 1997 was good, nothing landmark but a fine futuristic comedy, and the second one from 2002 was a repetitive and contrived mess. I didn’t bother re-watching them in preparation for the third film, mainly because I had better things to do (more interesting films to watch).
To my surprise “Men in Black 3,” directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who helmed the first two) doesn’t rely on the earlier films as much as I thought it would. You have to know the main characters, naturally, and a little of their history but this film doesn’t reference itself very much. Judging mostly by when the audience members, at the preview screening I attended, laughed there weren’t any inside jokes, or surprise cameos from characters in the previous movies.
Since “Men in Black 3” was made ten years after the sequel you would expect it to be high on its own nostalgia. Instead Sonnenfeld and crew make it into its own movie, with its own story--a story involving the element time travel--making for a fun and somewhat endearing science fiction comedy.
The movie takes place in a slightly futuristic New York, where aliens co-exist with humans and there’s a secret agency that monitors that extra terrestrial activity. As in all “Men in Black” films there’s a plethora of funky looking alien creatures. The top-secret agency base is crawling with them, and there’s an early scene in which our two leads go to a Chinese restaurant and blast a few away, including a big, disgusting fish.
The film focuses on the two agents, agent J (Will Smith), the smart talking, rather hyperbolic junior agent of fourteen years and his partner agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). At 65 Jones’ age is really showing, his face heavy with wrinkles like a crumpled up piece of paper and his eyes drooping.
K has been in a funk recently, and with the energetic J breathing down his neck, wanting to know more secrets of the universe (he’s a lower rank and pay grade) he’s not getting any better. Then one day, he suddenly disappears. Why? Because Boris (Jemaine Clement), a recently escaped, super alien criminal traveled back in time to the year 1969 and killed the younger version of agent K, effectively erasing him from the future. Now it is up to J, using something called Time Jump, to go back a few days further in time to kill Boris before future Boris can come and kill past agent K. Sigh!
After an impressive sequence showing J plunging off a skyscraper through time, he lands in 1969, where he (and the audience) is greeted by a number of 60’s and early 70’s clichés: hippies, Vietnam War, retro clothing, etc. And the alien activity is even freakier than it was in the future. There’s an alien/human party hosted by Andy Warhol, who, according to this movie, was actually an undercover agent. By accident agent J runs into the young agent K (Josh Brolin) and convinces him of what is going on. Luckily for J, the 60’s agency still has many of the same high tech gadgets and big guns that are used in the future. Except, oddly enough there are typewriters in the agency office. So they have the ability to wipe a person’s memory but they don’t have computers? All right then, no need getting caught up in miniscule details.
All I’m going to say about Brolin is that Sonnenfeld was wise to acquire him, because it’s almost uncanny how much he looks and sounds like a young Tommy Lee Jones. They have similar jaw structures, Brolin can do a similar southern twang. And you can see the same facial creases beginning to form on Brolin’s face. And yet he’s not distracting one bit.
For how crazy the film can be, Sonnenfeld’s direction is slick and he keeps it going at a steady pace. The script by Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio is funny and intelligent, with most of the jokes being verbal instead of physical. The picture doesn’t get too sidetracked or stretch a certain gag or sequence out to the point of stalling the pace.
And by the time the movie reaches its outrageous climax, involving the launch of Apollo 11, it doesn’t feel exhaustive because there weren’t a thousand chase and gunfight scenes preceding it. Not only that, the movie goes for some emotion. Toward the end we get to see how agent K and agent J first met in a fairly touching scene; Sonnenfeld lets the scene play seriously without comic interference and that’s followed by another equally touching scene between Smith and Jones at the end.
The real question is: did the world need another “Men and Black” picture? Before seeing it I was convinced the answer was “no” but since it turned out to be good, I would say, “sure, why not?”