Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
Despite the box-office success of Men in Black II in 2002 and Will Smith's continued dominance as a blockbuster action star, it took a decade for the creative team to return with Men in Black 3, and the time off seems to have been well spent. MIB3 doesn't have the same spark and excitement of the original movie, but it's definite improvement on MIB2, in terms of plotting, character development and visuals, and it makes a better case for the continued exploration of the MIB world (as is coming in this week's sequel/spin-off Men in Black: International). The dynamic between MIB agents Jay (Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) that was subdued in the second movie returns to the central focus here, albeit with an entertaining twist, and the special effects are much stronger, showcasing a new range of weird alien creations.
Jay and Kay spend the whole movie bantering and bickering, but Jones is only in about 30 minutes of the 106-minute movie, because the plot involves Jay traveling back in time to 1969 and teaming up with the younger Kay (Josh Brolin). Whether Jones wanted a reduced role or the story just called for him to be sidelined, the casting of Brolin turns out to be a genius move, and he riffs alongside Smith just as well as Jones did in the first movie. The villain here is more menacing than Lara Flynn Boyle was in MIB2, although nothing quite compares to Vincent D'Onofrio's turn in the first movie. Jemaine Clement plays Boris the Animal, a dangerous alien assassin who breaks out of a prison on the moon and travels back in time to kill Kay before Kay can capture him and lock him up.
Of course, the fate of Earth is also on the line, and Jay has to keep young Kay from being killed (and thus erased from the timeline) as well as make sure that Boris doesn't pave the way for a full-on alien invasion. As in most time travel movies, the rules are pretty inconsistent, and the franchise continuity doesn't entirely track, but as long as the story is entertaining, it doesn't really matter. For the third time in a row, Kay's character arc hinges on his longtime unrequited love for a woman (here, it's fellow MIB agent O, played in the present by Emma Thompson and in the past by Alice Eve), and that device has lost its impact from overuse. But the MIB movies are best when they focus on snappy banter and goofy aliens, and the worst elements of MIB3 are its attempts to wring emotional resonance from the relationship between Jay and Kay (including a particularly egregious retcon during the overly sentimental ending).
Clement doesn't really get to use his comedic skills as the humorless Boris, and MIB3 overall is more serious and action-oriented than the previous movies. But returning director Barry Sonnenfeld gets plenty of entertainment value out of the period setting, even if the movie's depiction of 1969 is about as realistic as Austin Powers. Brolin does a great approximation of Jones' gruff drawl, and Smith remains charismatic and likable. Thompson provides a suitable replacement for Rip Torn (whose character's funeral opens the movie) as the head of MIB, and at least the Burger King and Sprint store inside MIB headquarters are gone. Nothing has quite lived up to the potential that the first MIB offered, but at least MIB3 comes close.