When last seen, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) were…well, can anyone remember what the Men in Black were doing a decade ago in Men in Black II? Aside, that is, from keeping the peace on Earth between humans and aliens, waving neuralizers around to wipe out people’s memories, and bickering in the way of odd-couple partners in comedies? With so many movie extraterrestrials to keep track of over the past 10 years, even a studious MIB fan can be excused for feeling a bit neuralized too. Among the many pleasures of Men in Black 3 (available in hip-and-happening 3-D) is the nimble efficiency with which the movie reestablishes the old MIB conventions — all those fabulously ornate Rick Baker-designed creatures, all that Jones crustiness and Smith slickness — and then just as gracefully finds something new to do with the boys and their Ray-Bans.
To move forward, the story jumps backwards — to the summer of 1969, when the Mets were destined to win the World Series and astronauts were preparing to walk on the moon. The first time 1969 came around, K put the Mad Max-ish alien known as Boris the Animal (a tasty role for Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) in prison. Now, some 40 years later, Boris has busted out of the clink — on the moon, by the way — and slipped through the space-time continuum back to 1969, intent on killing K. So MIB’s present-day chief, O (Emma Thompson), dispatches Agent J to do a quick job of tinkering with history, safeguarding the world, and rescuing his partner, all without getting trapped in 1969 for good.
This is a winning plan for a lot of reasons, beginning with the axiom that, as the crew of the USS Enterprise demonstrated in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home back in ancient 1986, it’s always fun when fancy folks from the sci-fi future are forced to fumble with the less elegant technology of the past. Working with a model screenplay by Etan Cohen (who co-wrote the brilliant Tropic Thunder), MIB’s auteur director Barry Sonnenfeld captures the nostalgic hopefulness of the era. But most of all, MIB3 is one giant leap for mankind because Josh Brolin shows up to play the younger Agent K. And he just nails the feat, triumphantly creating a riff on/homage to the Tommy Lee Jones-ness of K that goes much deeper (and funnier) than a simple imitation of drawl and speech patterns. Brolin conjures up a man in full, just as taciturn but not nearly as closed as the craggy puss he is when Jones does the squinting.
It’s a great performance, one for the thespian yearbook. And, as happens in the best of cases, Brolin raises his costar’s game. For an African-American Hollywood superstar like Smith, marching his character backwards to 1969 presents unique opportunities for social commentary on changing perceptions of American black men. Smith makes big statements with the most casual and charming of reactions and line readings.
Sonnenfeld and Cohen move their baby along with an integrity and gait that ought to serve as a blueprint for other filmmakers faced with the particular challenges of reviving big-ticket and time-dated hunks of pop culture. Amid the mayhem, the movie is sophisticated enough to note the family resemblance between Rick Baker-stitched aliens and the human creatures who populated Andy Warhol’s Factory in the downtown Manhattan of 1969. And even while Brolin’s K is embroiled in a high-tension climactic showdown with Boris — at Cape Canaveral, on the day the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon — there’s air and space enough in the movie to evoke the real awe of that day, that time. The film isn’t afraid of emotional truth. Which is why, in the end, Men in Black 3 would be nothing without the participation of the alien called Griffin. Played with melting sweetness by the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg, Griffin has the gift — and curse — of seeing the future, or, more specifically, seeing multiple, equally possible futures, some swell and some less so. Griffin’s eyes are a misty blue, and he wears a little wool hat and a perpetual worried smile. He’s gentle and patient and he wishes the best for humankind, but he can’t guarantee it. Likewise, there was no guarantee that after so long an absence, there would be anything fresh to say about Men in Black. Yet behold, it is good. A-