There just aren't that many successful third films in a franchise, especially when a full decade separates the movie from the first sequel. Such a move inevitably feels like an attempt at an easy paycheck for stars who don't know quite what to do next. The facts surrounding the release of Men in Black III do nothing to undercut this haze of suspicion -- not only have ten years gone by since MiB2, but Barry Sonnenfeld hasn't directed a feature in six years, and Will Smith has been away from the big screen for four years since his poorly received drama Seven Pounds. With all that as prelude, it's a pleasure to report that MiB3 was made for all the right reasons, though not for only the right reasons.
That's not to say it's perfect; the movie does seem to suffer from a sluggish familiarity during its first 20 minutes, like a machine that's lain dormant for years and needs time to warm up after you turn it on. The premise is that bloodthirsty alien Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has escaped from the lunar prison Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) confined him to in 1969. Now he seeks revenge, which entails bringing the entire planet under his control. To stop this, K sacrifices himself by going back in time to stop Boris yet again, leaving Agent J (Will Smith) in an alternate future where K died in 1969. In order to set things right, J himself goes back to the Age of Aquarius. This requires him to work with a much younger K (Josh Brolin) and meet Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien who can live and experience every possible historical timeline simultaneously (don't worry, it actually makes total sense in the film).
Sonnenfeld enjoys playing with the 3D effects too much during the first few scenes of the movie -- he stages an elaborate shoot-out that feels like an uninspired Looney Tunes short -- and the writing early on never quite captures the playful tone of the original film in the series. However, when the plot finally gets going with J's voyage to the past, the picture has a bounce and charm that's undeniable.
The fresh blood added to MiB3 makes it such an enjoyable movie. Brolin's evocation of Jones never fails to amuse; it's the same pleasure we get watching and listening to Ewan McGregor do a dead-on Alec Guinness impression in the Star Wars prequels, except with a much better story surrounding such a clever performance. Stuhlbarg steals the movie as a bug-eyed, motormouthed lunatic. The character shouldn't work as well as he does, since he exists only as a plot function, but Stuhlbarg gives him a soulful quality that actually seems like the natural response you would develop if you were cursed/blessed with being able to see and experience every single conceivable reality. It's a very funny performance that also gives the film heart. These two actors keep Will Smith from coasting, and by the end it's like he's been reborn after his extended career hiatus.
For all of the help from these fresh faces, it's someone behind the screen who probably deserves the lion's share of praise. Screenwriter Etan Cohen, who co-wrote the superb Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder, has shaped the best script of any of the Men in Black films. He's created a complete story about friendship, trust, and time travel, and still managed enough funny lines for all of the characters, as well as a terrific comic set piece featuring artist Andy Warhol (SNL's Bill Hader) at the height of his influence in his legendary factory.
The script's balance of playfulness and sneaky, subtle depth gives Sonnenfeld a welcome focus. For a director whose trademark is visual outlandishness, it's amazing to see him use Chris Marker's minimalist masterpiece La Jetee as a thematic inspiration -- in that way MiB3 strongly recalls Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. Sure, there are fantastical chases and gooey aliens who have creepy, crawly things climbing out of their skin, but the spectacle is in service of a lovely little story that ends with two friends leaving profound truths known but unsaid. It's the rare summer blockbuster that really does have something for everyone, made by people who haven't settled on simply cashing in.