Back in Black
That old canard is right: comedy is not easy. Science fiction comedy is even less easy. Which is why there are so few examples merely of attempts, and, of course, far fewer actual successes. In this tiny subgenre, 1997’s Men in Black — about extraterrestrial refugees living amongst the population of New York City, and the ultra-top-secret law enforcement agency that polices them — remains a standout, and not just because it has scant competition. And yet its sequel, 2002’s Men in Black II, is lazy, obvious, and doesn’t even trust the wisdom of its predecessor, which wraps up the story of Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K beautifully, ending with sending him off into a well-deserved retirement. Cheaply and needlessly, MIBII tries to rewind K’s life-tale to haul him back into a service he was more than ready to leave. The sequel ends up negating the poignancy — we see in K that life as an MIB is tough and lonely — that gives the humor of MIB real bite.
Please note that I’m not suggesting that Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, No Country for Old Men) isn’t fan-frakkin’-tastic as K, and that I couldn’t watch him deadpan his way through Law and Order: ET forever. But the story has to be fair to the character and worthy of the actor’s talents. So it’s wonderful that the MIB franchise is back on track with Men in Black III. If Hollywood must foist endless sequels upon us, instead of finding new stories to tell, then this is at least the way to do it. MIBIII gives us more of what we loved the first film for (the significant dip in box office for the second film suggests we didn’t love it quite as much, though it was still quite successful) yet plenty of fresh spin, great new characters, and an expansion of its own story that doesn’t have to cheat to get there.
And here’s the really wonderful — and wonderfully science-fictional — thing: MIBIII jumps into time-travel, which can feel like a huge narrative swindle if not handled correctly. But there’s no big do-over button hovering over this tale, one that can cover up its own inadequacies with a simple temporal reset. Nope: the timey-wimey stuff here is clever, it’s funny, it’s thrilling — the actual sequences of travelling through time are intense and inventive — and it’s even poignant. I’m so glad that MIB has gotten back to recognizing that the best comedy is human — or, you know, humanoid — and isn’t afraid of emotion.
Oh, and the other kicker, and kick in the pants to MIBII? We’re rewinding Agent K again, literally, but this time it works, on all levels: the comedic one, the SFnal one, the dramatic one. An alien bad guy — the awesomely hilarious Jemaine Clement (Dinner for Schmucks, Despicable Me) as Boris the Animal, from a race of planet-destroying, civilization-destroying raveners — whom K put away, back in 1969, escapes from prison in a deliciously sci-fi-funny opening sequence. He grabs some time-travel tech that’s conveniently lying about and hops back to 1969, so that he can advise his former self on how to escape K’s clutches. And then J (Will Smith: Seven Pounds, Hancock) wakes up in 2012 in the new alternate reality in which Boris was never captured and in the same incident did, in fact, kill K in 1969. (Is your head spinning yet? It’s fun, isn’t it?) So J gets his hands on the same time-travel doodad and jumps back to 1969 so that he can prevent Boris from killing K and get the universe back on track.
This is where it gets really splendid. Young K is played by Josh Brolin (True Grit, Jonah Hex) in a deliciously droll impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan. They run around New York City in 1969 — it’s a little bit MIB meets Mad Men — and if you thought modern NYC was loaded with alien comedy, wait till you see how much fun III has with the possibilities temporally present here. (Kudos to screenwriters Etan Cohen [Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder], David Koepp [Angels & Demons, Ghost Town], Jeff Nathanson [Tower Heist, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull], and Michael Soccio, still working from Lowell Cunningham’s comic.) We kinda already knew this, but 1969 was an important year in human history, and it turns out that it was important for K, too, who isn’t quite yet the dour figure J has always known. So what happened to K back then that turned him so taciturn? K’s reticence is respected, and his secret is handled with handsome K-ish understatement.
There’s so much magnificent stuff going on here: Director Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild Wild West, and both previous MIB flicks) stages an alien shootout in 2012 New York that is a sly satire of a standard action scenario. Will Smith continues to be irrepressibly engaging onscreen. I’m delighted and astonished by Michael Stuhlbarg’s (Hugo, A Serious Man) Griffin, an alien refugee in 1969 who assists K and J; he is but the three-dimensional representation of a five-dimensional being who can see all possible futures at every single moment, and he’s like Samantha Morton’s precog Agatha in Minority Report, except sweetly comical and bittersweetly melancholy.
I have but one complaint: There’s nowhere near enough of Emma Thompson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) as O, the new MIB honcho. But that’s okay, because now I’ll be happy to see yet another installment in the series that gives her more to do. In fact, if all threequels were this entertaining, we wouldn’t have to complain about sequels ever, at all.