The first was a delightful surprise, so much lighter and wittier and, best of all, brisker than your generic lumbering blockbuster. Just as decidedly, the second was not. Now, with sole steward Barry Sonnenfeld again at the director's controls, MIB 3 – that's Men In Black Three-Peat for the uninitiated – has a chance to win the rubber match. Yes, another franchise is back and, at first, the thing appears as ossified as the fissures in Tommy Lee Jones's craggy mug. But then, what comes back goes back, retreating in time to the busy summer of 1969, and, in the mists of the past, damned if an old tune doesn't find some new energy. Delight, a modest yet palpable measure of the stuff, is restored.
In a nifty little reversal, we start with a woman in black, a sexpot in leather who frees the villain of the piece from his lunar prison. That would be Boris the Animal. He's a one-armed baddie who has a biker's beard, binoculars for eyes, and a lethal case of crabs – they keep erupting from his alien corpus to claw the unsuspecting. Meanwhile, back on the good Earth, K (Jones in de rigueur undertaker duds and shades) is looking as galaxy-weary as ever. Alas, so is the first act. The K-J banter with partner Will Smith errs on the tired side, a shootout at a chow mein palace is just action-scene rote, and Smith speaks for us all when he opines to his buddy: "I'm getting too old for this. I can only imagine how you feel."
Happily, and not a moment too soon, the plot rears its murky head. Sure, as ever in these matters, it defies comprehension, but it does have the singular merit of plunging J into "some sort of temporal fracture." Translation: He makes a leap back in time; in this case, a literal jump off a towering Manhattan skyscraper. Way up there, Sonnenfeld puts his 3D camera to potent use. The vertigo is disorienting and delicious – we feel dizzyingly high.
Tumbling through the decades, our boy lands in the heat of July '69, where he hooks up with a much younger K and where the movie embeds a wonderfully sustained sight-and-sound gag – Josh Brolin doing an uncanny impression of Tommy Lee Jones, right down to the last clipped consonant. His theft of the actor's whole persona is eerily accurate, and the gag never gets tired. Neither does an amusing set-piece foray to The Factory. There, in a tinfoil space where "everybody looks like an alien," the men in noir encounter a whiter shade of Warhol. Can't spoil the joke but, beneath his platinum wig, it seems that Andy was harbouring quite the ivory secret.
Here, Sonnenfeld regains his form from the original, encouraging both the extraterrestrial critters and the tossed-off yuks to creep up quietly from the edges of the frame ("We're meeting with the Viagrans – they have a revolutionary new pill"). The front-and-centre exception is Griffin, which affords another terrific actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, the opportunity to engage in some thievery of his own, stealing every scene he's in. Doe-eyed but fast-talking, sporting a ski tuque with ear flaps, his anxious alien has the capacity to entertain multiple possible realities simultaneously, including the most unlikely of all. In a visit to the rough diamond of old Shea Stadium, he hypothesizes that a bunch of perennial losers just might, a few months hence, transform themselves into "the miracle Mets." Like that would ever happen.
The ensuing action isn't much, but that too is refreshing – it's not really meant to be. Instead, the climax unfolds on a piece of real estate that's all about location, location, location. Atop the giant erector set of the actual moon launch, ensconced in their capsule, Neil and company, the factual heroes, take a back seat to their fictional counterparts. Apparently, men in black suits had to save the Earth before mankind in spacesuits could make that giant leap.
Eventually, the picture even explains the source of those many crags in Jones's weathered mug: He confesses that his fiercest battles are fought with the demon of regret. Of course, that's the same internal alien that typically worms its way into every movie franchise, inviting ennui and spreading disappointment and inflating boredom. But this time, at least for a few acts back in time, the demon has been tamed.
Men in Black 3
- Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
- Written by Etan Cohen
- Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars