Men in Black III should have one of its Roman numerals removed. This is the proper sequel to the 1997 original, and not the 2002 laugh-free abomination, Men in Black II.
That praise aside, MiB III never replicates the fun and novelty of the original. Most of the clever gadgetry, amusing gags, and crowd-pleasing special effects were exhausted in the first movie anyway -- how many extra-terrestrial jokes can one movie pull off? -- making Men in Black the poster child of what should be a one-and-done blockbuster.
Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the first two films and hadn't directed a movie since 2006's flop RV, returns. Perhaps creatively rejuvenated by the extra time off, Sonnenfeld is thoroughly engaged, including showy camera shots that recall his frenetic, cartoon-like work on Raising Arizona. (Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer for the Coen brothers' early films.)
Sonnenfeld's film is based on a suggestion by Will Smith, with a time-traveling story that has agent J (Smith) venturing back more than 40 years to prevent the assassination of agent K (Tommy Lee Jones as the older K, and Josh Brolin doing a spot-on impersonation of Lee as the younger version). It's not just the death of his friend J he is trying to stop, but an alien invasion of Earth that K prevented as well.
A consistent issue with the MiB movies has been the choice of actors as chief villain. Vincent D'Onofrio as the killer alien cockroach was merely adequate and far from memorable in the first film, Lara Flynn Boyle was miscast as the tentacled alien antagonist and wannabe lingerie model in the first sequel, and comic-actor Jemaine Clement (The Flight of the Conchords) is mostly wasted here as the deadly creature Boris the Animal.
Boris is the last of an aggressive species of extra-terrestrials that conquer and devour planets. The alien had similar plans for Earth, until K captured him, blasting off his arm in the process. After escaping his lunar imprisonment, Boris schemes revenge by going back to July, 1969 -- days before the first moon launch -- to eliminate his nemesis and change the destinies of his species and, of course, himself. Clement is almost unrecognizable in his Predator-meets-spider alien makeup and costume, and the lack of humor given his character undercuts his strength as an actor.
Before the time-travel plot kicks in, the first act relies on the familiar verbal one-upmanship between J and K. Not that Smith and Jones aren't into their characters' rapport, but by now the shtick is routine. After 15 years of partnership, it's rather sad that their relationship hasn't evolved beyond bickering like a longtime married couple. (The film does, at least, address this problem.) Thankfully, there's only a half-hour of this back-and-forth before we're given a fresh face in Brolin. Mimicking Jones in delivery and slight Texas drawl, Brolin gives Smith a new presence to spar with, offering the illusion of something we haven't seen before.
As for Smith, he's back to cracking jokes with about a 50 percent success rate, and jumping into the alien-blasting action as duty calls. But clearly he's not the draw he used to be; Smith was Mr. July Fourth, now he's Mr. Memorial Day. Jones looks his 65 years, and one wonders if this isn't the last go-round for Agent K, though the film never suggests it and he is reportedly game for more.
One positive addition to MiB III -- along with the casting of Brolin -- is a cleverly conceived new alien character named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who views the many possible universal futures and character fates at once. It's a brilliant device by MiB III's team of screenwriters and allows their film to explore -- and slyly mock -- the perils of time-travel plots. It's also a surprisingly limitless source of humor.
A sweet, childlike character, Griffin is a forerunner to the only touching moment yet in the increasingly hardened and violent comedy series, a surprisingly emotional ending to the film. It's a conclusion that could, and should, serve as a satisfactory finale to the franchise. As MiB III proves, once is enough.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
MEN IN BLACK III
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Screenplay by Etan Cohen, Lowell Cunningham and David Koepp. A Columbia Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and brief suggestive content. Running time: 105 minutes.
Critic's rating: ** 1/2
Agent J .......... Will Smith
Agent K .......... Tommy Lee Jones
Young Agent K .......... Josh Brolin
Boris The Animal .......... Jemaine Clement