Movie Review: MEN IN BLACK 3 Delivers

After a disappointing and largely forgettable second entry, MEN IN BLACK is back.

No one is more surprised than I about the following: I really enjoyed Men in Black 3

I expected a movie that falls into all of the usual summer blockbuster trappings: overlong, humorless, dull and skimping on story and character in service of bloated action sequences. The film subverted all of my expectations on those very scores, and delivered some great performances to boot. 

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) are in a bit of a partnership crisis. K is growing even more reticent with time, and J is tired of sharing a squad car with a grouch. But after a long-imprisoned alien named Boris the Animal breaks free and travels back in time to 1969 to murder the man who shot off his arm, J is dismayed to find himself in a world where K has been dead for forty years. J travels back a day earlier in '69 (not giving himself much time, as is always the problem in these scenarios. Why not go back weeks earlier in order to prepare?) to stop Boris and protect the young K, played by Josh Brolin.

It all sounds rather silly, but the crazy thing is that it works. I'm not maintaining that the movie offers Prime levels of time travel consideration, and there are obviously some paradoxes left untouched. But despite the fact that the film credits four separate screenwriters, the story is surprisingly coherent. The movie incorporates a couple of big moments from 1969 (The Factory, the Mets World Series upset, the moon landing) into the plot in a way that isn't overwhelmingly ham-fisted. It's a good story that feels thoughtful and deliberate, instead of merely thrown together as framework for shoddy action.

But what's more, Men in Black genuinely cares about its characters. The relationship between J and K is so firmly established now that their impasse feels like a real problem. K's history with supervising Agent O, played by Emma Thompson, has weight here as well. And since Tommy Lee Jones spends a large part of the movie elsewhere, returning director Barry Sonnenfeld sure is lucky to have secured Josh Brolin in the role of (relatively) young K.

The man is transformed.  He and Jones already look plenty alike in that craggily handsome way, and with the addition of an imperceptible prosthetic nose, he is Tommy Lee Jones. But this is no surface similarity. Brolin sounds exactly like Jones here. He acts just like him; his expressions, mannerisms and delivery are identical. I guess he logged some observation hours on the set of No Country. He's not only doing an eerie impersonation, however. Brolin makes the character his own, offering a younger, more joyful K who hasn't had all the life sapped out of him by this oppressive job yet. 

While Brolin steals the show, all of the performances are great. Smith is charming and tender and wry as always; Emma Thompson and her younger counterpart played by Alice Eve are both lovely. Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk EmpireHugo) takes a character that exists solely on the page as a deus ex machina and turns him into a sympathetic, substantial character. Bill Hader absolutely crushes it as Andy Warhol and Jemaine Clement is terrifying yet charismatic as Boris.

A lot of that is due to Rick Baker, who does terrific work on all of the alien creatures here. You can tell he had a blast with the design; each alien is so intricately, marvelously realized. The effects overall are pretty spectacular, and as this was a mandatory 3D screening, I was surprised by how great it all looked. I almost never believe 3D is necessary, and that's still the case here, but the 3D doesn't seem nearly as useless as it often does. It's deliberate and often very fun. The opening sequence as Boris escapes from his lunar prison, and a sequence where J quite literally falls through the history of time both offer outstanding visuals. 

And even more refreshing: the movie never skimps on laughs. So many popcorn action flicks forget to be funny, and MIB3 is often hilarious. It's fun, which is rare, and it's economical, which is even rarer. Sonnenfeld tells his story in an easy 103 minutes, and it clips along at a tidy little pace that is uncommon in a summer blockbuster. My only big problem with the film is the sentimental tragedy shoehorned into the last act, evidently to give the story more weight. It doesn't work, and what's more, the story doesn't need more weight. I'm glad Sonnenfeld didn't dwell on this impromptu bathos, but the three minutes in which it's presented make the whole thing seem rather odd and abrupt.

I've always quite liked the first Men in Black, but the first sequel drained all of the charm from it. Men in Black 3 is a return to this world which originally delivered such off-beat wit, and it never sacrifices story or character for fun. That's a lot more than one can say about most blockbusters.