REVIEW: Josh Brolin Makes Men in Black 3 Matter — Almost

Movieline Score: 6

It would be very easy to show up here and report that Men in Black 3 has no reason to exist, that it’s just another threequel that didn’t have to be made. The truth is a little more complicated: Men in Black 3 — which was, like its two predecessors, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld — is neither as much fun as the first picture in the series nor as totally useless as the second. It has an actual story line, one that’s quite moving in places. And it features a bit of casting that’s pure genius. Men in Black 3 is almost good enough to make you care about its existence. And yet not quite.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as Agents J and K respectively, and their partnership is no more harmonious than it ever was: Agent J accuses K, quite justifiably, of barely being able to communicate on any human level. Agent K responds with yet more evasiveness: He's a man of few words who appears to be carrying a great deal of baggage beneath his eyes alone. He has secrets, dammit, things that Agent J might be better off not knowing. Which makes Agent J that much more eager for some sort of connection with his partner-slash-father-figure.

Meanwhile, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, from Flight of the Conchords, doing his best Tim Curry imitation), a goggle-eyed alien villain whose dastardly plan was foiled years ago by Agent K — the episode also cost him an arm — escapes from prison with the goal of traveling back in time to kill Agent K before that arrest, and that arm-hacking, can happen. Simultaneously, Agent J wakes up in world where Agent K has been dead for years; he too travels back in time, to 1969, aiming to save the life of his taciturn hound dog of a partner, a guy who, as J aptly puts it, has “kind of a surly Elvis thing happening with him.”

Outside of an early scene in which J and K show up at a Chinese restaurant to investigate a health-code violation that involves noodle dishes laced with alien eyeballs and such, Men in Black 3 is pretty low on the silly, clever creepie-crawlies that were the mainstay of the original. (The script is by Etan Cohen, based on the comic-book characters created by Lowell Cunningham.) And because this is a costly summer blockbuster, released in 3-D no less, its last third is cluttered with the usual manic action, which is undistinguished and unmemorable.

But Men in Black 3 does have its charms, partly thanks to some first-rate second-banana players: The luminous Emma Thompson and the radiant Alice Eve play older and younger versions of the same character, and their presence helps tone down some of Will Smith’s unbearable “Love me!” rays. Jones is barely in the movie, but at least he makes an impact: It’s fascinating to look at his face, aging apace in the normal fashion — how has it gotten to the point that it’s such a wonderful thing to watch an actor grow into the face he was meant to have?

But most wonderful of all is Josh Brolin as the young Agent K. It’s so easy to believe that Brolin could turn into Jones, given a couple of decades. Brolin mimics Jones’s phrasing perfectly, capturing the essence of his easy drawl, getting those Southern-fried pauses just right. His features even carry that half-worried, half-exasperated look that Jones’ Agent K has always worn so well. The plot of Men in Black 3, once you strip away the silly action and 3-D falderal, is relatively simple and straightforward, and even though, in essence, it’s not anything you haven’t seen before, it still manages to strike a semi-meaningful chord. Its effects, particularly a sequence that takes place near the very top of the Chrysler Building, atop one of those majestic art deco eagles, are reasonably impressive. But somehow, its actors end up mattering more. Is that a strength or a liability in a summer blockbuster? It ought to be the former, but these days, who can tell for sure?

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