Much has been made of the herculean efforts it took to get “Men in Black 3” to the big screen – the constant rewrites, the lengthy hiatus, Will Smith’s giant trailers pissing off much of lower Manhattan – so the mere fact that “Men in Black 3” is watchable at all is something of a pleasant surprise. What’s downright shocking is how enjoyable “Men in Black 3” actually is – it’s an agreeably loopy, visually sumptuous, intermittently clever sci-fi comedy that does much to erase the bad memories of 2002’s wretched “Men in Black II,” easing back into the deadpan weirdness that made the original film so much fun.
The basic premise of “Men in Black” (as teased out in two feature films, an animated series, and a ride at Universal Studios where you fire ray guns at intergalactic foes), is that there are aliens living among us and the Men in Black, a highly secretive government organization, are responsible for policing the extraterrestrial activity on earth. Sort of like immigration officers with better tailors and big, shiny space guns.
What made the first film, released back in 1997, such a blast was director Barry Sonnenfeld’s straight-faced take on such a heightened, outlandish concept. He paired Tommy Lee Jones, an actor not exactly known for his penchant for levity, with Will Smith, someone who exudes charisma through special pores in his skin, and watched them run down all manner of wild, monstrous creatures with a kind of everyday offhandedness. It was an uncanny combination of elements borrowed from “Ghostbusters,” “Dragnet,” and that episode of “The X-Files” with Alex Trebek. By setting the movie in modern day Manhattan, Sonnenfeld made the core concept more identifiably relatable (since every weird dude in New York could now be dismissed as a poorly disguised alien). 2002’s sequel was overwrought and forgettable, lazily duplicating plot elements from the first film with an added emphasis on numbing visual effects over character beats.
This new film, based on a premise conceived by Smith on the set for the second film, adds the potentially problematic wrinkle of time travel: an alien villain named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement from “Flight of the Conchords” under gobs of gleefully grotesque Rick Baker make-up) breaks out of a prison (on the moon, no less) with a plot to go back in time and assassinate Agent K (Jones), the man who sent him to prison and shot off his arm. Since Smith is the only one affected by the temporal wackiness (apparently time travel makes you crave chocolate milk, which is one of those clever, funny tics that was missing from the sequel), he has 24 hours to go back in time and save K, preventing an extraterrestrial invasion in present day (complete with giant, “Avengers”-y warships attacking midtown).
And with that, the bulk of “Men in Black 3” is set in the past – 1969 to be exact. A lot of the plot mechanics (from a script credited to Etan Cohen but worked on by at least three other screenwriters, most notably David Koepp, who was hired twice to overhaul the troubled project) have a perfunctory, find-the-doodad feel that so many big budget films these days fall back on. (In this case, the doodad is a tiny trinket that forms a barrier around the earth so that Boris’ people can’t attack in present day.) But the real fun of “Men in Black 3” comes from the interaction between Smith and Josh Brolin, playing a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’ terse Agent K. His impression is spot on – all of Jones’ pregnant pauses, Texan inflections, and pointed commands are present and accounted for – but what’s more impressive is the way that Brolin inhabits the character, shedding light on a time when K was an idealistic young agent and not a battle-hardened grump. (His impression was no doubt cultivated during the production of "No Country for Old Men.")
Sometimes the set pieces seem like missed opportunities, particularly one involving a showdown at Coney Island. You can feel the punchline coming – the freaks performing for the public are actually gooey aliens – but it never arrives, thanks mostly to a rushed, unsatisfactory action sequence. Ditto a sequence set at Andy Warhol’s factory. This could have been like the swinging version of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence, but again things feel so jam-packed with stuff that we’re not able to linger for long enough to enjoy the film’s far-out texture. The script feels both overtly simplistic and needlessly convoluted, especially after the introduction of a character played by “A Serious Man’s” Michael Stuhlbarg as a living, breathing deus ex machina, a hyper-dimensional being that looks and acts kind of like Rain Man, and is prone to ploddingly expository dialogue.
Action is not Sonnenfeld’s strong suit, but the film’s climax has a nutty charge reminiscent of Sonnenfeld’s chaotic, unfairly ignored comedy “Big Trouble.” It’s set during the Apollo 11 space launch and features an undeniably clever set piece on the scaffolding around the rocket, right as it’s about to launch (with both present and 1969 versions of Boris going after our heroes). “Men in Black 3” was shot in 3D and Sonnenfeld proves himself more than capable with the new technology – his everything-is-wide-angle approach really pops with the added dimensionality, with both simple crane shots and complex visual effects both receiving a much-needed charge.
And, truth be told, “Men in Black 3” is a visual feast. It doesn’t quite commit to the time period with the same, er, verve that “Dark Shadows” does, but it comes pretty damn close. Production designer Bo Welch, who was clearly influenced by the period in his designs for the earlier films (remember those egg chairs from the original?), is able to really go crazy on this entry as we get to see Men in Black headquarters in 1969, all rounded edges and wood paneling. Make-up genius Rick Baker also goes hog wild, creating more than 100 aliens for both time periods and giving us his skewered take on classic outer space beings. Everything looks quite amazing, and when complimented by Danny Elfman’s groovy galactic score, makes for a pretty intoxicating experience.
“Men in Black 3” might not be an installment that anyone was clamoring for, but it is an enjoyable lark nonetheless. Smith and Brolin have an undeniable chemistry reminiscent of Smith and Jones in the first film, it is visually fantastic (this is one of the few 3D films out there actually worth seeing in 3D), and towards the end even manages to have an unexpected emotional kick. It’s a welcome, riotous return to form for the franchise, a laid back, easily entertaining, at times genuinely weird movie that barely feels like the stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster that we all know it actually is. After the saggy sequel, it’s nice to have some good, gooey fun with the Men in Black again. It might not be the most elegant or sophisticated summer blockbuster out there, but you won’t feel the desperate need to neurolize yourself afterwards, either. [B-]