After the disaster which was “Men in Black II” hit the multiplexes ten years ago, I was relieved to think that the franchise was dead. But “MiB 3” proves me wrong—and a good thing, too. Director Barry Sonnenfeld recaptures some of the off-the-wall craziness of the first number in the series that paired Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents J and K, respectively. The bad news here is that Jones has only limited screen time; the good news is that Smith gets more. And Josh Brolin, playing a much younger K, proves an inspired addition, uncannily channeling Jones’ deadpan delivery and Texas twang.
The role is critical to “MiB 3’s” success, since the plot hinges on that hoary sci-fi device, time travel. When a decidedly alienated alien named “Boris the Animal” (played well over the top by Jermaine Clement) escapes from his maximum security lunar prison cell, things don’t look too special for K. Seems he blasted off Boris’s left arm years back, so the Animal is now back to off his nemesis. The only way to prevent this is for J to travel back in time and make sure that K finishes the job in 1969, so that he can be around to be J’s grouchy but wiser partner these many years later.
He is dispatched on this unlikely mission by Agent O (Emma Thompson) and aided by a nervous-making schlep (Michael Chernus) who possesses the right gadget. One problem: to effect the “time jump” he has to literally jump, in this case off NYC’s Chrysler Building. In this segment, as throughout the film, a legion of special effects contributors create some visual treats which are wonderfully funny. (No, I didn’t see the 3-D version: I continue my principled holdout.)
Arriving on the late 60s scene in the Big Apple, the slightly disoriented K bumbles his way through hippies, racist cops, an Andy Warhol be-in, and other signature cultural hurdles. He has to prod and drag the reluctant young K to convince him that his (K’s) continuing existence is at stake, as well as that of the world. The finale, fittingly enough, takes place on July 16, 1969, at Cape Canaveral.
As in the prior installments, the art and production design departments get to have a field day in this era, as well as with the contemporary aliens. There are plenty of “eww, gross!” moments, most of them played for laughs. (The film is rated “PG-13,” and that seems about right.) I would have liked to see more of the Men in Black’s headquarters, which is like an Earth-bound update of the bar in the first “Star Wars” movie. But here and elsewhere, Sonnenfeld and Company supply a wealth of intriguing background detail: much of it flashes by so quickly that I’m pleased to have the DVD available for slow-mo.
You don’t have to have seen either of the first items—and you can skip #2, in any case—though fans of the series will enjoy the allusions to earlier events and characters, such as a particular pug dog. “Men in Black 3” won’t win any Oscars, although it might be nominated in some technical categories. It’s just good fun to kick off the holiday season.