The first follow-up to Men in Black, ten years ago, seemed to be running on empty. It was the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with sequels, whereas this one won me over completely. Why? For one thing, after a decade’s absence, I enjoyed revisiting the characters of Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) and their alternate-reality version of New York City, where the population is dotted with bizarre-looking aliens, designed by makeup whiz Rick Baker. While it’s impossible to recreate the feeling of originality that made the 1997 movie so enjoyable, screenwriter Etan Cohen and director Barry Sonnenfeld have done the next best thing: they’ve created a story that probes the relationship between Smith and Jones and plays on our fondness for the actors in these roles. (How it will play to moviegoers who are unfamiliar with the earlier film, I can’t imagine…but I think they’d eventually catch on.)
The screenplay is wickedly clever, forcing Smith to journey back in time to the year 1969 in order to undo an incident that has affected Jones ever since. In that year of the NASA moon launch Agent J meets a younger version of Agent K, played by Josh Brolin (doing an expert, and straight-faced imitation of taciturn Texan Jones) and persuades him that they have to work together to capture a feral criminal named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement). Their guide through the labyrinthine problems of dueling past-and-present realities is a nerdy time-travel savant, nicely played by Michael Stuhlbarg.
The first Men in Black pushed the envelope of visual effects, but the toolkit available to fx supervisors Ken Ralston and Jay Redd, production designer Bo Welch, and cinematographer Bill Pope has expanded exponentially since then. They, along with Sonnenfeld (himself a former cinematographer), take full advantage of this, producing eye-popping, photorealistic shots that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. You want to re-create the look and feel of Cape Canaveral at the time of the space launch in 1969? No problem. You want Will Smith perched atop the Chrysler Building? Nothing to it. It’s how Sonnenfeld makes use of these settings that gives Men in Black 3 its tremendous vitality.
I even enjoyed the use of 3-D, which was executed in post-production, and looks great, with some bravura shots that are meant to be enjoyed. It’s that spirit of fun that permeates Men in Black 3 and makes it so much fun.