That the Men In Black franchise comes to us from a different time period is clear right from the films it builds upon. The plot is Terminator by way of Austin Powers, there's a touch of Groundhog Day gimmickry near the climax, and Will Smith has, disconcertingly enough, not aged a day.
Yet in the fifteen years since we first met Agents J and K in the first of Barry Sonnenfeld's goggles-and-goop trilogy, things have changed. We've heard all the alien-in-disguise celebrity jokes, for one. We've seen more exciting visuals, and far better 3D. And (while this might be an optimistically premature presumption) we might finally be done with the buddy-alien-movie. Also, while Smith might still be able to make his special agent togs Look Good(TM), the very act of donning a well-cut suit now belongs to Neil Patrick Harris.
Having said that, there's something oddly comforting about watching three great actors so earnestly embrace this schlocky cinema from a simpler, cheesier time. Smith, propelled by his own and undeniable charisma, literally leaps headlong into the one-joke premise this film is built upon, that of his cool Agent J still confounded by the inscrutability of his laconic partner, despite us all being more than used to it by now.
Tommy Lee Jones is consistently fine as Agent K, but Sonnenfeld's masterstroke lies in casting the chameleonic Josh Brolin as the younger Agent K. This 1969 version of K, a Mad Men In Black version, so to speak, has Brolin channelling his No Country For Old Men alumnus so eerily well the effect outdoes anything the 3D can throw at us. Only very rarely can a casting call be this perfect.
Still, a one-joke
film it undoubtedly remains. Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords plays a growling and unspectacular (mostly) one-armed villain called Boris The Animal, a man Agent K apprehended back in 1969. Having escaped from his lunar prison, he goes back in time and kills K, causing J to wake up in a world where K died many moons ago. (Back To The Future this ain't, the film conveniently sidestepping many a question, like how J became an agent if K didn't recruit him at all. This film likes its Gordian Knots nice and loose.) Now, with the scream-happy aliens of Boris' planet threatening an invasion of Earth, Agent J naturally must time-jump back to 1969 to kill Boris before he kills K. Savvy? Of course you are. Like I said, Austin Terminator.
The proceedings are invariably tedious, with the usual gags about Mick Jagger and supermodels being alien creatures and some over spelt-out schtick about Andy Warhol's soupcans, but somewhere here pops up Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, a fifth-dimensional alien who can foresee every possible outcome for everything. This is a character worthy of inclusion in a Douglas Adams novel (well, perhaps if everything he said wasn't as cloyingly nice) and Stuhlbarg's sincerity propels the film's finale with some emotional heft, but the film cheats again at the very end with a conveniently rounded familial reveal that, if you think about it, fundamentally robs even the first MIB of its cool-cop cold-cop vibe.
Then again perhaps it is in the thinking that lies the rub. Perhaps, like the actors who started shooting the film before the second and third acts of the script were even written, we aren't supposed to think about it at all. And simply enjoy the laugh when the black Agent K lands up in the 60s, the first thing he does is steal a car -- but, as he honestly says, it's not because he's black. The stereotype-tickling coincidence, however, is priceless.