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The Great Train Robbery

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The biggest surprise about Men In Black 3 is that it’s actually pretty good.

Lunar-Max

Young K and Agent J
Young K and Agent J

As production geared up for MIB3, rumors swirled that there were all sorts of script issues and discontent among the ranks. Allegations indicated they began filming without a completed screenplay.

The final cut would indicate otherwise, as the story pulls together nicely. Things can get dicey when four writers are used to pound out a coherent, singular piece of writing, but in this case the writers are Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder), Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can), Michael Soccio (Will Smith’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV series), and David Koepp (Ghost Town).

Granted, the movie starts strong but then dips into a bit of been-there-done-that with the reprisal of the standard bickering between Agent J (Will Smith, Enemy of the State) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive). Thankfully, the story regains its mojo when a time travel element is introduced and the initial banter and sparring that seemed needlessly somber and downbeat turns out to be a setup for an unexpected and sweetly satisfying conclusion.

Catching up with J and K 10 years after their last big screen adventure and 15 years after they were first paired (although it’s 14 years in movie time), the Men In Black are now fully, completely, and painfully aware of each other’s tics and foibles. Most grating to J is K’s unrelenting stoicism; K’s complete lack of emotion and unwavering adherence to certain routines and likes has gotten under J’s skin.

Fish-Slapped

Men In Black 3 is a time travel movie that narratively goes back to July 1969 and cinematically goes back to July 1997.

Narratively, the time travel involves Agent J traveling back to the ‘60s (via a particularly precarious method of freefall) in order to catch up with an exceptionally nasty one-armed villain named Barry the Animal, or, as the savage often states, “It’s just Barry!” Barry has made the leap to 1969 on a mission to alter history and obliterate Agent K before he can shoot off his now missing left limb.

Barry’s nicknamed “The Animal” based on his vicious vivacity; much like Muhammad Ali, he stings like a bee. But in the Animal’s case, it’s in a much more literal sense. Barry (Jemaine Clement, Dinner for Schmucks) is a great MIB villain and Clement is an interesting – but very effective – casting choice in bringing this brutal baddie to life. Barry’s pure evil, looks cool, and has that distinctly freakish MIB comic sensibility.

And therein lies the cinematic time travel back to July 1997, when the original Men In Black was released. This movie picks up where its predecessors left off in terms of humor, visual style, attitude, and, of course, Danny Elfman’s perfectly tone-setting score. There’s no pressure here to adapt to more contemporary, chronically cynical storytelling. And that’s this movie’s other big surprise. In addition to simply being better than expected, it’s also a refreshing throwback to the kind of summer movie fun that’s been supplanted by pure bloated-budget spectacle.

Amazin’ Mets

You can call him "Barry."
You can call him “Barry.”

With New York City under attack by space aliens (for the second time this summer movie season – following the attack in The Avengers – and it’s only May), J’s gotta get back in time and right some wrongs or else the world is doomed.

Sure, the time travel allows for some nicely predictable comedy bits, particularly in regard to some technologies. But the ‘60s gave birth to James Bond, Maxwell Smart, Mission: Impossible, and, much more significantly, space travel, so MIB3 steers clear from simply writing off the ‘60s as the goofy, groovy era of Austin Powers.

Even so, there’s room for a funny cameo by Andy Warhol (Bill Hader, TV’s Saturday Night Live) that succinctly pokes fun at pretentious artists while still showing an appreciation for the era of The Factory.

As an added bonus, going back in time means catching up with a much younger Agent K, a role assumed here by Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex). Brolin’s channeling of Tommy Lee Jones is much more fun to watch than Jones himself. C’mon now. Jones is squarely on the list of the world’s most boring actors (along with Chris Cooper and Stellan Skarsgard); it doesn’t seem to matter much if Jones is a shill selling Ameriprise in a TV commercial or an agent fighting aliens in a big screen movie. Brolin, however, mimics that stoic persona and mines it for all its comedic worth.