Since Ghostbusters (1984) paved the way, Hollywood has found an entertaining sub-genre (and a boatload of money) in the sci-fi comedy, and since Ghostbusters II (1989), it has found that the sub-genre is not kind to sequels. Men in Black (1997) followed in Ghostbusters footsteps and was a lot of fun. Men in Black II (2002) was sort of like the memory-erasing devices its protagonists use, set on 90 minutes. I know I saw it, I don’t remember anything about it. If the on-again, off-again Ghostbusters III ever does come about, let’s hope it takes after Men in Black III, which is inventive, entertaining, and often very funny and does what a good unambitious sequel should: give us more of the same without feeling tired.
It’s been ten years since the forgotten events of Men in Black II, and Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are still at it, protecting Earth from the scum of the universe. To threaten the planet this time they are given Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, who is perhaps looking at a career as a goofy villain), a grisly alien whose skin is alive with claw-like fingers that emerge at his command. Boris escapes from a prison on the moon and returns to Earth to exact revenge on K for putting him away forty years ago and shooting off his arm in the process. It seems an alien who is assuming the form of a human, whose skin ebbs and flows like a sound wave and can generate lethal projections from his palm, could regrow an arm, but I guess not. Boris is the last of his species, the rest of which died out while he was locked up, so he decides to get his payback by traveling in time to kill K in 1969 to prevent him from arresting his former self.
J wakes up one day to find that his partner of fifteen years was actually never his partner because Boris killed him forty years ago and now an army of Boris’s race is descending on Earth to invade. Why J is aware of having ever been partners with K when, because of Boris’ actions, he should never have met him is nearly the first example of the script’s lax attitude about things that make sense. The movie never adequately explains how its time travel works and seems to make up the rules to suit the story; it gets really nonsensical during the climactic finale, which is both logically and emotionally bizarre, but only if you bring to it a semblance of thought. In fact Men in Black III doesn’t hold up well under mental scrutiny; it provides a satisfying immediate experience that falls apart pretty easily once you start to think about it, but it’s bright and colorful enough to prevent you from doing that until you’re out of the theater and in the car and you ask yourself, “Wait, did Agent K really just walk down the beach with that little boy, leaving the boy’s freshly dead father to rot not ten feet away?” These kinds of questions aren’t welcome during Men in Black III and the movie does enough to keep them out of your head until you’ve already enjoyed it.
J travels back in time to the day before K’s death with a plan to prevent the murder, a plan that is interrupted by K, played in 1969 by Josh Brolin. When J explains himself, the two start their partnership twenty-five years early and track down Boris, leading to a showdown during the Apollo 11 launch in Cape Canaveral when the agents attempt to stow a highly important piece of equipment onto the spacecraft, and Boris, well actually both Borises, the 1969 and the 2012 versions, try to stop them.
When the movie takes its tongue-in-cheek act on the road to the late ’60s, it hums along using the plot as a clothesline to hang little skits. It’s all territory Austin Powers has been to and been to better, but I did enjoy a scene at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio and hip hangout, where we discover, in classic Men in Black fashion, that many of the partiers are aliens. Unexpectedly, Warhol (Bill Heder) is not; he’s actually an undercover agent infiltrating the alien world with pieces of art he thinks are so stupid he can hardly believe they’re popular, which explains a lot.
Apparently, the production was riddled with problems, especially at the script level, so it’s doubly remarkable that such bouncy entertainment should emerge with what seems like zero effort. Once something this silly seems strained, you really are in trouble but Men in Black III never gets there. In fact it’s script, written by Etan Cohen, is mostly unassuming and clever and not without a little guts; it even goes for a suicide joke and gets it, no small task. The performances have the right amount of cheek, especially from Brolin, who must have studied for his Tommy Lee Jones impression on the set of No Country for Old Men (2007). Jones gets a pretty sweet deal, enough work for twenty minutes of screen time and his face on every poster and billboard. Clement snarls and snorts to great effect, Emma Thompson is fine as the boss of the agency, and Michael Stuhlberg creates an interesting alien that can see every possible timeline all at once. As for Smith, there’s a reason he remains our most watchable screen star, and Men in Black III is a more than watchable movie.