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Review: A far out trip to the past in 'Men in Black 3'

In the new installment of the space-alien policing series, Will Smith and Josh Brolin (as a younger Tommy Lee Jones) are chasing a bad alien in 1969, and the new mission makes for a campy, fun film.

May 25, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Will Smith stars in "Men in Black 3."
Will Smith stars in "Men in Black 3." (Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures )

"Men in Black 3" has got the MIB mojo back — well, most of it anyway. With Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones once again suited up and sporting shades as agents J and K, and a casting coup in Josh Brolin playing K's younger self, the latest alien crisis is good trippy fun as the fate of Earth, and '60s retro style, hang in the balance.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld, who's been onboard from the first film, has recovered some of the brashness and all of the unbridled affection for the weird, wonky otherworldly types that made the initial 1997 cosmic comedy such a kick. "3" is a more restrained affair, but it kind of suits the guys now that an entire decade has passed since the disappointing "Men in Black II." Let's just let that poor sap rest in peace.

In a sense, that's the film's opening gambit — a funeral for one of the agency's own that essentially represents the passing of an era with K (Jones) delivering the driest eulogy in memory. But "MIB 3" is not content to leave the past alone, and neither is a very crusty alien called Boris the Animal ("Flight of the Conchord's" Jemaine Clement is proving once again how well crazy suits him). He is 40 years into a life sentence for some very bad behavior but determined to find a way to get back to the '60s so he can reclaim, well, a little piece of his former self.

Whatever Boris has in mind, all that Agent J (Smith) knows (or anyone who's seen the trailers) is that one day he and K are crime-fighting partners, 20-plus years into cleaning up alien messes and using that handy neuralyzer to remove any ordinary humans' memory of those events — and the next day he wakes up to a world where K has been dead for decades. And therein lies the meat and potatoes of "MIB3."

Can history be rewritten and K be saved? Is time travel possible? Will J take a leap of faith, or at least one off the top of the Chrysler Building to find out? It's certainly a good excuse to let J do a little time traveling and test whether he'll have as much on-screen chemistry with Brolin's K as Jones'. As a footnote, Emma Thompson has joined the task force as O, theoretically the agent running the entire secret agent shebang (Alice Eve plays her younger self). But as it has been from the first, this is a boys' game and the women barely register.

No surprise, there is a lot more than K's fate riding on Agent J's mission, and with both a present day and a '60s-era version of Boris on the loose, there are so many new memories to be made — and erased. That back-to-the-future element proves to be "MIB3's" best feature, if for no other reason than it allows Brolin to have a go at channelingJones, which he does brilliantly. The locked-down partner that J has lived with all these years turns out to be a lot looser guy in 1969. There is even the hint of a love life. One of the movie's great pleasures is watching all the ways in which Jones' Agent K, temperamental and totally impatient, informs but doesn't define Brolin's version of the character.

Fortunately, there are other reasons that the past is a blast, thanks to "3's" screenwriter Etan Cohen, a "Beavis and Butthead" alum and a co-writer of the dark farce "Tropic Thunder." Cohen likes messing around with convention and he does a nifty job letting a vintage vibe overtake most of the movie, with director of photography Bill Pope ("Matrix"), production designer Bo Welch (all "MIBs" and much more), Oscar-winning visual effects whizzes Ken Ralston and Jay Redd, and master creature creator Rick Baker more than happy to find themselves in a kind of retro heaven.

As it happens, 1969 was a very busy year with space travel, sports, hippies and more providing the filmmakers a lot of fodder to futz with. The main conduit for keeping this fairly complicated story straight comes in the form of Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg). The actor, who was excellent as the much-tested martyr at the center of the Coen brothers'"A Serious Man," is completely captivating here as a sweet alien nebbish whose special effect is his multi-platform memory — basically he knows all the possible scenarios for what happens next, depending on what happens now.

Smith has always been the glue that held MIB together, and he does so again in "3." Here's the difficulty. The very winning wide-eyed, wise-cracking rookie Smith introduced in the original "MIB" made for a hard act to follow, even for the actor. Both he and the movie get some of the swagger back here. But for fans, the exhilaration of experiencing the original's inventiveness for the very first time — well that ship has sailed. Still, 1969 turns out to be a pretty good year for the men in black, making "3" campy fun if not quite a classic.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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