MEN IN BLACK 3
3 1/2 stars out of 4
After producing perhaps the worst sophomore effort in cinematic franchise history, leads Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld took a decade off, slowly regrouped and then splendidly jolted the "Men in Black" series back to life. With the notable exception of a semi-stiff first act, the original collaborators and their four screenwriters -- sticking ultra-close to comic-book author Lowell Cunningham's original creation -- might have crafted the finest "part 3" sequel of all-time. Before you retort with "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings," keep in mind those were structured trilogies, not originals followed by unplanned sequels.
Pinching a whole bunch from the first "Back to the Future," the filmmakers avoid more of the same old rehashed space junk by instead turning "MIB3" into more of an origin story, a la "X-Men: First Class."
With sci-fi and especially its time travel sub-genre -- filmmakers can conjure up their own logic and laws of physics; nothing is off-limits conceptually. Where most films of this ilk fail is when they alter the parameters halfway through in order to accommodate ill-fitting plot twists. "MIB3" never once cheats the audience or strays from its established game-plan. It is supremely well-written, top-loaded with crackling wit and surprisingly poignant drama.
One of the creative team's many master strokes is setting the second half of the story in 1969 and weaving a half-dozen or so historical, culture-changing events into the mix. Although Andy Warhol's Factory "be-in," the New York Mets World Series victory and the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon have little in common, they all occurred within months of each other and by including them with such unerring finesse, the writers are able to suspend the audiences' disbelief like no one's business. It is like piping-hot comfort food on a cold winter's night.
The success or failure of any action flick -- and again, sci-fi in particular -- is crucially dependent of the strength of the villain. Coming in a notch or maybe two below Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) from the first installment, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, "The Flight of the Concords" TV series) is still able to project considerable menace and queasy gallows humor. The opening and next-to-last scenes would not be nearly as effective and convincing without Clements' gravely baritone and gnarly choppers.
For reasons probably known only to the studio footing the bill, Z (or Zed -- Rip Torn) has been replaced by O (Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as the younger version) as the MIB head honcho. While Eve's O is depicted essentially as a curvy ornament, Thompson -- to no one's big surprise -- makes the absolute most of her limited screen time and gets the movie's biggest laugh.
Because his character has always been written to be flat and emotionally detached, Jones' K (present for far less than half of the streamline 105 minutes) is regulated to little more than a glorified cameo, which is actually preferable. Stealing the show at every turn and delivering the best Jones/K impersonation imaginable, Josh Brolin's young K is spot-on with his deadpan rendering and the semi-fleshing-out of some of the characters' mysterious backstory.
For his first screen role since 2008's "Seven Pounds," Smith does everything that is expected of him but not much more. Starting off tentative and twitchy, Smith's J doesn't reclaim his cocksure strut until well into the third act, but in all fairness to him, that is how J was written for this outing. Smith's agent could rightfully claim he's being the ideal, unselfish team player and is putting the story first, yet the character still comes off as just slightly hamstrung and guarded.
All things considered, "MIB3" is light years better than the lowly "MIB2," a more-than worthy bookend to the classic first installment and will likely -- likely -- be the best received (both by critics and audiences) sequel of the 2012 summer season.
Whatever minor flaws "MIB3" has are more than made up for with the air-tight script, deft humor, that whole 1969 thing and its dedication to being fun, dangerous, clever and, again -- touching. There's not even a fourth installment-seeking final scene -- and bravo for that. This is what every summer popcorn movie should strive to be and more. (Sony/Columbia)