Men in Black 3: Somebody Get Tommy Lee Jones a Gold Watch Already

The years off have not been kind to the Men in Black—Josh Brolin as the young, 1969 version of Agent K is the only saving grace in this uneven, long-in-the-making sequel to the sequel

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Columbia Pictures

It’s silly to feel sorry for a big studio movie, especially a second sequel bound to make buckets of money, but director Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 3, arriving 15 years after his original and 10 after Men in Black 2, is so creaky and out of touch it inspires pity. Its opening sequences are a near marvel of confusion, mayhem and embarrassments for its actors. If it was a person, you’d worry it had dementia.

Agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) are back, but the reliable tart and taciturn vs. sweet and sassy energy between them is absent, as if they filmed their scenes independently, acting opposite puppets in front of a blue screen. Their banter is blather. At a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan they manage to fight off a slew of aliens. In 3-D Rick Baker’s creations, while never intended to be taken seriously, seem goofy, old-fashioned and repellent in the wrong way—that is, you really don’t want to look at them. Even blasting aliens in tandem, K and J still aren’t connecting. J is needier than usual, while K is brooding; an alien he locked up 40 years ago, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement from The Flight of the Conchords), has escaped from a lunar prison and is headed back in time, to July 1969, just before the first moon walk, to kill K.

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The average moviegoer is well educated in the particulars of time travel. Even if your high school curriculum didn’t include any H.G. Wells, thanks to Back to the Future, Terminator and dozens of other films, just about everyone knows how it works. Why don’t the fleet of screenwriters who cooked up this script? They have J wake up the morning after the bloodbath at the Chinese restaurant to a world already missing K. This makes no sense. Boris has gone back in time, but given that he hasn’t found or killed young K yet, old K ought to be alive, well and doing that “sort of surly Elvis” thing he does in contemporary Manhattan. Instead he’s dead and gone, and at headquarters, only the boss and former paramour, O (Emma Thompson, 53 and playing 65 or so, every actress’s dream) even remembers old K.

Also, an alien invasion has commenced, because while K was capturing Boris back in 1969 he also put up a shield that prevented anyone from Boris’ planet to enter the atmosphere. (One more logistical lament: that would include Boris in 2009.) J goes back in time to save young K and stop the invasion. Just before he leaps, J gets a warning from the guy (Michael Chernus) who lends him the time traveling device, which looks like a cross between a police badge and a smart phone, to be careful in 1969. “It wasn’t the best time for your people,” he cautions. J looks baffled, as if being a black man today didn’t include having some sense of what being a black man in 1969 was like. Maybe he’s been hitting the neuralyzer in his down time.

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Without Jones, it must be said, Men in Black 3 improves considerably. The actual time traveling sequence, which starts with Smith in freefall from the Chrysler Building, is the kind of special effect that makes the annoyance of the 3-D glasses worth it for a few minutes. 1969 is reasonably fun—and if anyone can pull off jokes about racial profiling, it is the ever-likeable Will Smith. There’s an entertaining run-in with Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) and the whole Factory gang and a few sweet scenes with a Mork-like alien (Michael Stuhlbarg, who starred in the Coen’s A Serious Man).

But the best reason for going back in time, and really, when it comes down to it, the only reason to see Men in Black 3, is Josh Brolin, who plays young K. His Tommy Lee Jones voice is not that far removed from the George Bush voice he used in W., but he hits all those querulous notes just right. Posture, body language, Brolin nails it; his sideways glance is pure poetry of Tommy Lee-ness. Even if you love Jones, and many of us do, it can be hard to distinguish between his characters—so often maximum misanthropes—and his suffer-no-fools public persona. In his brief scenes in Men in Black 3, which mercifully only constitute 10 or so minutes of screen time, Jones gives the impression that he’s genuinely miserable being there. Meanwhile, Brolin looks like he’s having the time of his life playing a youthful curmudgeon, and he reminds us what was so delightful about Jones and his taciturn routine in the first place. J keeps looking at young, cool K and shaking his head. “What happened to you?” he wants to know. For Jones, likely a case of sustained sequelitis.

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