1997’s Sci-fi actioner Men in Black was for quite some time the ne plus ultra of summer movies. Hyper-stylish, dazzlingly inventive and boasting spectacular special effects it was alien-splattering goodness for all ages. Rarely had traditionalist buddy-movie dynamics been so successfully transposed to the realm of the fantastical as the memorable pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones saw our heroes battle extra-terrestrial grotesques with a variety of Über-cool death dealing hardware. Practically all facets of the flick were polished to perfection, from the impeccable production design to Danny Elfman’s darkly melodious score. It was a winner plain and simple.
Then came a sloppy sequel which saw not a dropping of the proverbial ball but rather its casting into the fires of Mount Doom, indeed Men in Black 2 stank like the colon of a dead man putrefying in the midday sun. So bad was it in fact, fans wished they could get their hands on one of our heroes' mind wiping “Deneuralisers” and banish the painful memory altogether. Bereft of invention 2002’s dismal outing was only too happy to rest upon the laurels of its predecessor, failing to expand upon the MIB universe in any meaningful whilst a laughably unintimidating villain served only to compound the legion other problems. Now some 10 years after the last instalment, many having written off the series entirely, we’ve been graced with a third outing for the besuited duo that’s surprisingly decent.
Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) becomes the victim of an old nemesis, Boris the Animal, a vicious alien assassin who travels back in time so as to slay the secret organisation's most venerable member. K’s partner, Agent J (Will Smith), seeks to set things right and proceeds in turn to jump through the space-time continuum back to the 1960’s in order to foil Boris’ nefarious schemes and save his friend and mentor.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld revels in the stylistic opportunities afforded him, presenting a superbly realised evocation of 60’s Manhattan. Visiting the inchoate MIB headquarters we’re in a world of retro sci-fi homage as rubber-suited aliens with bubble-glass space helmets mince about while our government spooks now pack weaponry visually akin to a line of female pleasure toys as designed by Werner Von Braun. Credit too must be given to the makers for refusing to whitewash the fact the decade wasn’t exactly a bowl of peaches for African Americans, Smith being pulled over by two racist motor-cops making for an interesting little vignette.
Most fun is to be had with Josh Brolin as the young Agent K, who's succeeded in transforming himself into Lee Jones doppelganger such is his tone-perfect mimicry of the flinty ones curmudgeonly delivery and hangdog expressions. Smith is in typically vivacious form and there’s a genuine rapport between himself and co-star Brolin. Emma Thompson replaces Rip Torn as the agency's director and delights as always. Mercifully short Nicole Scherzinger cameo aside, the supporting cast sparkles with Boardwalk Empire luminaries such Michael Stuhlbarg as an inter-dimensional being with the powers of precogniscence and Adam Mucci in a blink and you’ll miss him role as a prison guard. There’s nary a foot put wrong performance wise and the quality of the effects work sterling throughout.
The script is positively cerebral by summer movie standards and provides a few decent chuckles involving famous 60’s personages such as Andy Warhol. Also there’s more emotional resonance to the proceedings as Agent J receives some much needed character development pertaining to his past and relationship with partner K.
Thankfully in this instalment of the franchise the antagonist succeeds in generating the requisite peril-factor, the crustacean abomination Boris the Animal (a barely recognisable Jermaine Clement, he of Flight of the Concords fame), bringing that paramount sense of jeopardy to the affair. Hirsute, missing one arm and sporting freakish “Herr Doktor” style goggles “The Animal” is capable of projecting impaling splines from the palm of his hand and can summon little beasties to do his bidding which crawl forth from fleshy orifices. A big improvement in the villainy stakes over Lara Flynn Boyle of MIB 2 infamy. There seems to have been a genuine desire not to repeat egregious mistakes of the preceding series entry which is commendable and shines through.
We have an extra layer of grittiness to the action too with an ample smattering of salty language and some deliciously gloopy alien extermination as evidenced by a Chinese restaurant shootout that culminates in Smith tearing at the guts of a ravening space fish by reaching through one of its pulsating gills. Nice.
Formulaic though the series plotting may be fast becoming as misfortune always seems to befall crusty old Tommy Lee in the beginning of the narrative thus prompting Smith to put in all the story-driving leg work, Men in Black 3 nevertheless defies negative expectations. By virtue of its time travel hi-jinx and the inspired casting of Brolin it proves there’s still life and indeed imagination in the franchise yet. Jolly good fun.