Audiences had good reason to expect the worst from Men in Black 3. The original MIB was an authentic hit thanks mainly to the chemistry between stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The second installment squandered the first film's easy charm and replaced it with gooey space aliens repeatedly going splat. A decade has passed since MIB 2. Why bring back a series that seemed tired and played-out before the Iraq War even began?
If phrases like "easy money" or "gullible audiences" come to mind, think again. There's always a profit motive behind a big summer-movie franchise, but that doesn't necessarily tell the tale. For the most part, MIB 3 is breezy and fun and all the things moviegoers look for when the weather gets hot. It's the most entertaining entry in the series so far. It even gets poignant at the end. Who knew?
Significant time off may have helped recharge the MIB batteries. Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed all three movies and began his career as the Coen brothers' ace cinematographer, spent the last several years producing TV shows. Smith last appeared in a movie four years ago, as he's been working behind the scenes to support the show-biz careers of his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and kids. But the secret weapon here is a script by Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Coen Brother Ethan Coen) that manages to match alien goo with character and story.
MIB's appeal always hinges on how the movies play everything straight — the aliens secretly populating Manhattan are regarded as slightly more eccentric versions of regular New Yorkers. The secret agents played by Smith and Jones wrangle the creatures with dry wit and not a drop of irony. MIB 3 takes the whole thing back to 1969, as Agent J (Smith) time-travels to prevent Agent K (Jones) from being killed by bad guy Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement).
Setting much of the film in late-'60s New York allows the series' visual effects team to reimagine MIB headquarters — among other things — as it might have existed then. There's an acre's worth of mainframe computer, for example. Even the period aliens are redesigned with '50s and '60s movie monsters in mind. The whole thing generates way too much visual detail to digest in one viewing. And it's hard to resist the cultural references and settings, especially Andy Warhol's famed studio and hangout, The Factory. The artist gets his own MIB-style origin story and the Velvet Underground finds its rightful spot on the soundtrack — though I'd have paid extra to see Lou Reed's secret alien origins revealed at last.
Origins lie at the heart of MIB 3. Josh Brolin nails the '60s-era Agent K — he studied Jones' distinctive speech and mannerisms and made them his own — but he's here to add depth to the two agents' back stories. The payoff is watching Men in Black transcend its comic book origins, at least for a little while. That's more than we probably should ask of any saga's part three. — KEN KORMAN