Men in Black III is one of those movies that, according to all accepted rules of moviemaking, shouldn't be nearly as good as it is. Here we've got the third instalment of a high concept comedy, that's ten years out from a brutally disappointing sequel, with a lead who hasn't been in a movie in nearly four years, that had an astronomical budget, and a script that wasn't complete at the time of shooting. And to top it all off, it's about time travel, a genre based on the kind of careful forethought and planning that doesn't always mix well with the looseness of a broadly appealing comedy.
But it works, somehow, and its that ability to surprise after all these years that proves to be MIB3's best asset. Oddly enough, this doesn't come through all that well in film's first third, reportedly the only act fully written once filming began. 14 years since joining the Men in Black program, things haven't changed all that much for Agent J (Will Smith), as he and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) continue to act as a first response clean-up crew for alien activity in New York that risks exposing the presence of extraterrestrial life on earth.
Smith has been out of theatres since 2008's middling Seven Pounds, and his age lines will clue you in to the time gap since the original Men in Black better than anything else, but you wouldn't know it from the infectious energy he continues to bring with him on screen. His mostly one-sided bantering with the typically gruff K lets the pace roll over all the bits and gags that land with a thud, of which the opening half hour has plenty. Having Emma Thompson make funny noises for what feels like 5 minutes as new MIB leader O is a considerable waste of talent.
What finally kicks things off is the sudden disappearance of K, which despite J's cracks about his age, isn't due to senility. Seems an old enemy of K's, an inventively designed menace named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), has escaped from earth's strongest alien prison (the location of which is worth keeping secret), and has set out to rewrite history with the aid of a pocket-sized time machine. With the timeline altered to facilitate K's death in 1969, J is the only one able to pick up on the change, and follows Boris back in time to prevent K's assassination.
Part of the charm of the Men in Black franchise has been its ability to handle heady, galaxy-spanning concepts and simplify them to their most enjoyable, the results being no different once the series decides to tackle time travel. It's a "fun first" policy that make Doc Brown's guidelines on the matter seem like Stephen Hawking compared to all of MIB's silly quirks, such as a craving for chocolate milk being a symptom of the timeline getting screwy and a climax that rejiggers the rules we've already established with no explanation.
The time travel conceit could have been played off as a gimmick if the rest of the film didn't have a secret weapon that's mostly new to the franchise: character development. As K frequently reminds his partner, the nature of the MIBs is to be emotionally detached and invisible, something J has yet to grasp. When J's temporal trip forces him to re-partner with a much younger, livelier K (Josh Brolin doing an astoundingly uncanny imitation of Jones), it's clear that something bad has to have happened to turn this dapper young gun, who's wooing the younger O (Alice Eve), into the ice cold agent of the modern day. Even J gets his own rushed, yet shockingly affecting, arc during the final act, though it does unintentionally retcon certain elements of the original film.
Completely out of character with most comedies, there's a real sense of personal stakes that accompanies J and K's usual mission to save the world, which creates a backbone for the film to lean on between the entertaining action set pieces, such as a downtown car chase on a pair of uni-bikes that look like the revolving lenses from the opening credits to Game of Thrones. It's unfortunate that the film goes long stretches without being especially funny (the exception being a gut-busting scene featuring SNL's Bill Hader as Andy Warhol), but it's almost always thoroughly enjoyable. And as a bonus, the worn-out sidekicks of the worms and Frank the pug are all but absent this time around, leaving more time for the actual stars.
Men in Black III manages to bring back just enough of the magic which made the first film such a hit that it makes you remember the endless potential the series had when it premiered all the way back in 1997. It modernizes itself in some disappointing ways by being noticeably more violent and vulgar than it's predecessors, but it also develops the universe of the Men in Black by taking to time to develop the characters who inhabit it. If someone could go back and erase MIB2, history books would make a lot more sense; despite how seemingly improbable it may be, MIB3 is the true sequel to Men in Black.
3 out of 5