Back in Black

Will Smith & Tommy Lee Jones whoop ET (again) in Men in Black III.

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It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Josh Brolin flatters Tommy Lee Jones’ all through Men in Black III with his spot-on mimicry. But Brolin isn’t the only one doing the impersonating. MIB3 as a whole is trying to replicate its predecessors, with the surprise being that it actually does so to great effect.

Having the same director for each installment of the series helps. Barry Sonnenfeld, though working with a fresh roster of writers, hasn’t lost sight of what made his first two MiB films enjoyable: timely humor, well-choreographed action, a convoluted storyline that somehow manages to be easy enough to follow no matter your age group, and a damn catchy theme song.

Jones’ Agent K is a decade older since we last saw him, now even more furrowed and bitter, and still fighting crime. Meanwhile, breaking out of a prison on the moon is one of his old enemies, Boris The Animal (Jermaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords … Wait, holy shit — that was Jermaine Clement?) Boris, who’s disgusting to the point of not being kid-friendly, vows revenge on Agent K; his plan is to travel back in time and kill K before he gets the chance to lock him up — which sounds harder than it is, considering Boris succeeds in a flash. The death of K means earth is vulnerable to an alien invasion for reasons that aren’t nearly as crucial as saving Tommy Lee Jones. That’s where Agent J (Will Smith) comes in, his job being to travel back in time to save his partner and the world.

Brolin portrays the 1969 version of Agent K, a young man who has yet to turn into the old and bitter guy we’ve been accustomed to seeing, but who has nonetheless managed to acquire a snarl and dead-pan wittiness. With slick black hair and a one-eyed squint, Brolin’s got the look down. There are times when his vocals freakishly match that of Jones’ voice (so much so that I immediately wanted to re-watch No Country for Old Men), though he loses some of his touch when delivering lengthier portions of dialogue.

With all the addition of Brolin to the cast, it’s a surprise to see Smith pulling as much weight as he does. Smith is the big star here, more so here than in the previous MiB films. So it’s MiB3 starring Will Smith, and including a talented supporting cast featuring great performances from Emma Thompson and Michael Stuhlbarg. I guess the focus on Smith’s is the result of having your other main character’s screen time divvied up between two actors.

As such, Men in Black III answers a very important question — How good can a movie be with too little Tommy Lee Jones? — with a surprising answer: pretty good. The alien invasion thrill remains intact, probably due in large part to nostalgia. Another piece of that MiB nostalgia is seeing the on-screen chemistry of Smith and Jones as a pairing of polar opposites. (That’s no knock on Brolin, who’s a consistently solid actor.)

Throughout the film, J keeps asking what it is that turned K into the distant old man he is in the future. My question is: Was there no other storyline to go with other than the one that excludes Tommy Lee Jones from much of the film?

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