*Men In Black III (PG-13)
That old canard aside, comedy is not easy. Science-fiction comedy is even less easy.
In this tiny subgenre, 1997's Men in Black — about extraterrestrial refugees living among the population of New York City, and the ultra-top-secret law enforcement agency that polices them — remains a standout, and not just because it has scant competition. And yet its sequel, 2002's Men in Black II, is lazy, obvious and doesn't even trust the wisdom of its predecessor, which wraps up the story of Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K, sending him off into retirement.
Cheaply, MIB II tries to rewind K's life-tale to haul him back into service. The sequel ends up negating the original's poignancy: We'd seen in K that life as an MIB is tough and lonely, which gave the humor of MIB real bite.
So it's wonderful that the MIB franchise is back on track with Men in Black III. If Hollywood must foist endless sequels upon us, instead of finding new stories to tell, then this is at least the way to do it.
MIB III jumps into time-travel, which can feel like a huge narrative swindle if not handled correctly. But the time-wimey stuff here is clever, thrilling, even poignant.
Oh, and the other kicker, and kick in the pants of MIB II? We're rewinding Agent K again, but this time it works on all levels: the comedic one, the sci-fi one and the dramatic one.
Alien bad guy Boris (Jemaine Clement), whom K put away back in 1969, escapes from prison in a deliciously sci-fi-funny opening sequence. He grabs some time-travel tech and hops back to 1969, so that he can advise his former self on how to escape K's clutches. And then J (Will Smith) wakes up in a new alternate reality in which Boris was never captured.
In this reality, in fact, Boris killed K in 1969. So J gets his hands on the same time-travel doodad and jumps back to 1969 so that he can prevent Boris from killing K and get the universe back on track.
This is where it gets really splendid. Young K is played by Josh Brolin in a deliciously droll impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones' deadpan. They run around New York City in 1969, and if you thought modern NYC was loaded with alien comedy, wait till you see how much fun III has with the possibilities temporally present here.
We kinda already knew this, but 1969 was an important year in human history, and it turns out that it was important for K, too, who isn't quite yet the dour figure J has always known. So what happened to K that turned him so taciturn?
There's so much magnificent stuff going on here: Director Barry Sonnenfeld stages an alien shootout in 2012 New York that is a sly satire of a standard action scenario. Will Smith continues to be irrepressibly engaging onscreen. I'm delighted and astonished by Michael Stuhlbarg's Griffin, an alien refugee in 1969 who assists K and J. He is but the three-dimensional representation of a five-dimensional being who can see all possible futures every single moment, and he's sweetly comical and bittersweetly melancholy.
If only all threequels could be this entertaining, we wouldn't have to complain about sequels at all.