If dying is easy, and comedy is hard, science-fiction comedy is even harder. In this tiny subgenre, 1997’s Men in Black—about extraterrestrial refugees living among the population of New York City, and the ultra-top-secret law-enforcement agency that polices them—remains a standout, and not just because it has scant competition. And yet its sequel, 2002’s Men in Black II, was lazy, obvious and didn’t even trust the wisdom of its predecessor, which wrapped up the story of Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K beautifully, ending with sending him off into a well-deserved retirement. Cheaply and needlessly, MIBII tried to rewind K’s life tale to haul him back into a service he was more than ready to leave. The sequel ended up negating the poignancy—we see in K that life as a MIB is tough and lonely—that gave the humor of MIB real bite.
Please note I’m not suggesting that Jones isn’t fan-frakkin’-tastic as K, and that I couldn’t watch him deadpan his way through Law & Order: E.T. forever. But the story has to be fair to the character and worthy of the actor’s talents. So it’s wonderful that the MIB franchise is back on track with Men in Black III. If Hollywood must foist endless sequels upon us, instead of finding new stories to tell, then this is at least the way to do it. MIBIII gives us more of what we loved the first film for, yet plenty of fresh spin, great new characters and an expansion of its own story that doesn’t have to cheat to get there.
And here’s the really wonderful, and wonderfully science-fictional, thing: MIBIII jumps into time travel, which can feel like a huge narrative swindle if not handled correctly. But there’s no big do-over button hovering over this tale, one that can cover up its own inadequacies with a simple temporal reset. Nope, the time-rewind stuff here is clever, it’s funny, it’s thrilling and it’s even poignant.
I’m so glad that MIB has gotten back to recognizing that the best comedy is human—or, you know, at least humanoid—and isn’t afraid of emotion.
Oh, and the other kicker, and kick in the pants of MIBIII? We’re rewinding Agent K again, but this time it works, on all levels: the comedic one, the science-fictional one and the dramatic one. Alien bad guy Boris (Jemaine Clement)—whom K put away back in 1969—escapes from prison in a deliciously sci-fi-funny opening sequence. He grabs some time-travel tech and hops back to 1969, so he can advise his former self on how to escape K’s clutches. And then J (Will Smith) wakes up in the new alternate reality in which Boris was never captured—and who, in fact, killed K in 1969. So J gets his hands on the same time-travel doodad and jumps back to 1969 so he can prevent Boris from killing K and get the universe back on track.
This is where it gets really splendid. Young K is played by Josh Brolin in a deliciously droll impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan. They run around New York City in 1969, and if you thought modern NYC was loaded with alien comedy, wait till you see how much fun MIBIII has with the possibilities temporally present here. We kinda already knew this, but 1969 was an important year in human history, and it turns out that it was important for K, too, who isn’t quite yet the dour figure J has always known. So what happened to K that turned him so taciturn?
There’s so much magnificent stuff going on here. Director Barry Sonnenfeld stages an alien shootout in 2012 New York City that is a sly satire of a standard action scenario. Will Smith continues to be irrepressibly engaging onscreen. I’m delighted and astonished by Michael Stuhlbarg’s Griffin, an alien refugee in 1969 who assists K and J; he is but the three-dimensional representation of a five-dimensional being who can see all possible futures every single moment, and he’s sweetly comical and bittersweetly melancholy.
If all threequels were this entertaining, we wouldn’t have to complain about sequels.
MEN IN BLACK III
Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin