Fifty years ago, people regularly went to the movies to get out of the heat. Those of us without air conditioning would cough up a couple of bucks, almost regardless of what passed in front of our eyes, to relax for two hours with cool air moving over us.
“Men in Black 3” provides the cerebral equivalent: It’s a brisk but restful breeze blowing through our heads, requiring no thought whatsoever – in fact, thoughts are an impediment to enjoying it – and touching us just a bit in unexpected ways. If it’s not nearly as fresh and clever as the 1997 “Men in Black,” it restores a bit of luster to the series after the dud sequel of 2002.
The best thing about this picture is that it takes the old story in new directions. The worst is that it raises expectations it never intends to fulfill.
Intergalactic assassin Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), who was imprisoned in 1969 after Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) blew off his arm, breaks out of his moon-based cell and heads down to Earth.
He time-travels back to 1969 to prevent young K (Josh Brolin) from subduing him and creating a space-based defense that will repel an attack from Boris’ planet. So Agent O (Emma Thompson), who runs the MIB agency after the unexplained death of Zed, sends J (Will Smith) back to 1969 to help young K.
Writer Etan Coen – the “Tropic Thunder” scribe, not to be confused with one of the Coen brothers – has come up with one terrific idea: a sweet-natured alien who envisions all possible futures at once and advises J and young K about their options. (He’s played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who starred in “A Serious Man” for the other Coens.)
But Coen and director Barry Sonnenfeld, who has helmed all three installments, don’t develop characters. Once Agent J goes back to the past, he repeatedly asks questions that never get answered: How did cheerful young Agent K turn into the embittered old man (Tommy Lee Jones) who recruited J to the agency? Young K and young O (Alice Eve) are obviously in love, so why did they split up? (If you say, “The answers will be in the next sequel,” I’ll slap you.)
The film gives a little more insight into Agent J’s personality, but K remains a blank. So does Boris, for all his snarling nastiness. Motivation goes out the window: He’s evil, we’re not, so let’s rumble.
The main performances haven’t changed much, but the chemistry between Smith and Jones has started to sag. (J makes jokes about K’s facial immobility, but…it’s still immobility, which takes you only so far.) Brolin does a killer impression of Jones, and subtle makeup artists make him a credible younger facsimile.
I wish the filmmakers had taken equal pains with the plot: They’ve been sloppy, and not just about the usual time-travel impossibilities.
Jones and Thompson are supposed to be the same age, and Brolin (who turned 44 this year and looks it) is supposed to be 29. The climax takes place during the Apollo moon shot, where TV crews don’t notice guys shooting at each other on top of the rocket’s launch tower. And that launch takes place in Cape Canaveral – which was called Cape Kennedy in 1969. Doesn’t anyone in Hollywood know how to use Wikipedia?