‘Men in Black III’ review: A trip in time, old school-style

Will Smith is shown in a scene from “Men in Black.” (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures)

‘Men in Black III’ a surprisingly fun adventure in time travel

It’s been more than a decade since “Men in Black II” movie was released. It was the sequel to a popular and well-regarded “Men in Black,” in which Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith made a formidable and humorous team of intergalactic cops, taking down rogue aliens. The original, released 15 years ago, was a clever and playful adaptation of Lowell Cunningham’s comic books. The sequel was an unmitigated disaster that sought to cash in on the success of its predecessor.

The third installment, released in 3-D across the nation, doesn’t really have a focus. The story bleeds between lost fathers, strained relationships and myriad explosions, both mechanical and biological. But thanks to this lack of focus, a low bar to start with and a stellar performance by Josh Brolin as a young Agent K, “MIB III” turned out to be surprisingly entertaining.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and written by Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen), “MIB III” has a slow, and very “MIB II”-like, start. There’s chases and explosions and slime. Lots and lots of slime. It’s predictable, and at first it sets a lackluster tone. And there’s no Frank, the talking pug. (A travesty, for sure.)

We’re quickly introduced to agents J and K — played by Smith and Jones — who both bring out, with what seems some hesitation, their former roles: K as the grumpy old man and J as his slick protégé. Their routine seems just that: routine. They clean up alien messes made in sight of unaware humans, busting out neuralyzers and space guns to deal with their extraterrestrial endeavors. They even make snarky remarks with their boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson).

This basic rehash of the previous movies continues for about 15 minutes, and it seems the movie was designed to maximize profit as a typical blockbuster with little regard to plot or script. And even though it is a summer blockbuster, and it has its share of plot holes and inconsistencies, it suddenly becomes fun and witty, an absolutely pleasant surprise.

The fun, and there’s plenty of it, comes in the form of some appealing acting. First on the list is Jemaine Clement, who plays a supervillain by the name of Boris, an interplanetary criminal who is locked away in a maximum-security prision on the Moon. A great comic, Clement brings genuine feeling to his role, continuing his streak of stellar work (“Flight of the Concords,” “Eagle vs Shark”).

The audience quickly learns Boris and K have some deep history, history long before his partnership with Agent J. Any further explanation, of course, will involve time travel. And with this time travel, we’re introduced to the younger version of Agent O (Alice Eve), an out-of-this-world Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) and a sweet, infinite-timeline-seeing alien who seeks to help J and K save the world (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The time jump lands our heroes in the summer of 1969, shortly before the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The time seems a blend of “Mad Men” and naïviety. It’s a world you may recognize, but one you won’t remember. In this time, we meet a young Agent K, hilariously played by Josh Brolin.

A major story element involves trying to reconcile the two Ks: the younger one is slightly more emotional. He smiles now and then. Actually, he’s a bit of a stud. But that doesn’t sync with the older, jaded version with whom we are familiar. “What happened to you?” J continually asks his partner in wonder. It’s never really answered, but that’s OK. You really don’t need to know.

There’s tons of action, flying from Coney Island to Cape Canaveral (then known as Cape Kennedy), and the silliness is dosed with a few doses of anxiety, both physical and metaphysical. (Wait until you see Clement’s hand and hear Stuhlbarg’s ramblings.) And jokes abound, especially regarding the black and white aspect. It is 1969, after all.

Again, it’s surprising how touching “Men in Black III” was, considering what preceded it. But it manages, despite preconceived notions, to be fun and interesting. And while there’s really no need for a “Men in Black IV,” it’s not a bad thing “MIB III” exists. Thank goodness for hindsight.

Three black-suited stars out of five.

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