The evolution of the comic book movie in recent years has led to an increasing focus on grounding them in as much reality as possible. In that respect, Men in Black III, like the rest of the series, is a refreshing throwback, in that it fully embraces its roots with open tentacles, creating a goofy and cartoonish world in which aliens of all shapes and sizes lurk around every corner, with the stalwart agents of the Men in Black organization keeping a lid on all the chaos.
In this installment, the first in a decade, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as agents J and K, with Smith’s amiable, smooth-talking wiseass playing the audience proxy in contrast to Jones’s no-nonsense, good-ol’-boy professionalism. All is weird business as usual in the day-to-day life of the MIB until a nasty alien named Boris (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) breaks out of his lunar prison and travels back in time to 1969 to kill agent K before the confrontation that leads to Boris’s capture, in turn paving the way for an invasion of Earth by his species, the Boglodites. In order to save K and the planet, J follows Boris back in time and teams up with the imperiled younger version of his partner, played perfectly by Josh Brolin.
The 1960s backdrop makes for some fun retro set pieces, offering a unique perspective on some cultural touchstones like Andy Warhol, the moon landing and the Miracle Mets. The prevailing social climate also causes some trouble for Agent J simply for being a black man … in black. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, returning again to the franchise, keeps everything light and frothy, making sure everyone from the actors to the audience is enjoying themselves, and for the most part, it works. Jemaine Clement, not usually thought of as intimidating, seems to be having the time of his life as the goggle-eyed, shark-toothed Boris. Michael Stuhlbarg also commits admirably to what could have been a cloying role in lesser hands—a childlike alien who exists in the fifth dimension, able to witness the past, present and future of all timelines simultaneously.
But for all of this, the film doesn’t leave that much of an impact. With so many writers credited, and with principal photography reportedly having begun with the script still unfinished, it’s no wonder that it all somehow feels a little undercooked. The dialogue lacks the wit and punch to drive any laughs, often leaving Will Smith gamely attempting to power the narrative purely by the force of his own sputtering. The big, character-defining mystery in Agent K’s past, when revealed, feels unearned and tacked on, which it likely was.
Still, Men in Black III is a perfectly acceptable summer blockbuster, with all the frenetic action, visual inventiveness and lack of substance that has come to be associated with the phrase. If you remember the other entries in the series, you know exactly what to expect here. Turn off your brain, pass the popcorn and watch Will Smith street-fight a giant fish.
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer: Etan Cohen, Lowell Cunningham, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, Michael Soccio
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement
Release Date: May 25, 2012