By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Well, this is a nice surprise. Traditionalists should be happy to know that director Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black III,” for all its cutting-edge psychedelia, avoids most of the pitfalls that usually plague sequels, especially summer films, with a rather old technique. It’s called writing. Using its power, screenwriter Ethan Cohen saves the world, in a way.
It only makes sense. For without breathing reinvigorating life into those intrepid alien fighters, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones), and rescuing the franchise from Filmdom’s junk heap, gosh knows what havoc vile fiends like Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement ) might wreak upon us. Happily, we are entertained in the bargain.
It’s a handsome bit of scribing. Mr. Cohen’s screenplay, astutely stewarded to the screen by Mr. Sonnenfeld, employs a nifty time travel plot that takes the opportunity to provide a steady stream of witty social commentary. The resulting mini-thesis in comparative eras is nicely balanced with great, but judiciously applied, special effects. The acting is solid.
Just don’t expect to see too much of Tommy Lee Jones this go-round. You see, K, that dour, brilliant hunter of extraterrestrial reprobates, may or may not exist according to the complexity of anomalies at the heart of this saga. It all has to do with the evil Boglodite scum, Boris, who, swearing revenge, journeys to the past in quest of altering history.
Naturally, loyal partner that he is, Will Smith’s J sees it as his duty to beat Boris back to 1969 and circumvent any circumvention the inhuman scourge is hell-bent on effecting. All of which opens a Pandora’s box of paradoxes for the tale to rummage through and ruminate. Dizzying, it reminds of when I was a kid and endlessly spun around by a pal.
Anyone who says they completely understand the kaleidoscopic chronology of the events that ensue is either full of it or has a mind NASA could use. In such event, where thinking too much might spoil the childlike wonder that cinematic sleight of hand facilitates, I prefer to just let it all wash over me like a wave, trusting that I’ll get the gist.
Not that it doesn’t cross your mind while watching all the pretty pictures that time travel is possible. It’s one of humankind’s finer conundrums, especially suited to astrophysicists and college sophs quaffing ‘em down in a pub on Saturday night. What the heck? You’ve already bought into the aliens among us thing. In for a penny, in for a pound, eh guvnor?
However, just to make sure matters don’t spin out of orbit, and managing to enhance its total package in the same swoop, “Men in Black III” finally puts some soul in its buddy-buddy aspect. Heretofore, it’s mostly been a lot of gratuitous chiding. But it seems there’s a backstory we didn’t know, and it’s integrated into the scenario with notable aplomb.
Josh Brolin does a splendid job of imagining K the way he was back in the day, all of 27 years old and not quite as vinegarish as the elder special agent he will become, if things work out for his future partner. Oh sure, the potential for total grouchiness is there. Still, Smith’s J just can’t stop marveling, “What happened to you?” That’s the big secret.
But along the way to seeing if it’s divulged, there’s an ogre to be fought, setting the stage for a whimsical teaming between time-traveling J and the old-new K, or is it the new-old K? The getting-to-know-you, reacquainting sequences, replete with allusions to the fates, intuition and the powers of a sixth sense, are fancifully buoyant.
Proving there is beauty in the annoyances we come to tolerate in best friendships, their bond unfolds to the accompaniment of humor, mutual respect and, just to make sure it isn’t too treacly, requisite sardonic repartee. OK, it isn’t O’Neill, or even Pinter, but the quick witticisms against the action backdrop assure a superb equilibrium of components.
Of course a great affiliation requires a monstrous mutual enemy. And Jemaine Clement’s Animal supplies the abhorrence with a villainous contempt. Having lost an arm that has given him the added, vengeful resolve of an Ahab, there’s also something wrong with his eye. And then there are all those disgusting, creepy, crablike helpers that pop out of him.
Complementing the comical yuckiness, the derring-do, the quandaries of time travel and the vicarious camaraderie, special effects edited to augment rather than outshout the story put this farce over the top. While it’s usually true that the sequel is never equal, the very well-tailored “Men in Black III” fashionably proves the exception to the rule.
“Men in Black III,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and stars Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin. Running time: 103 minutes
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