Back in 1997, Men In Black felt like state-of-the-moment entertainment with self-consciously hip, retro-futurism encoded in it's DNA. A decade and a half later the sagging brand gets a jumpstart via the dependable sequel orthodoxy of a time-travel plotline, one that pays tribute not just to the swinging '60s, but to the '80s heyday of big, silly sci-fi action comedies.
Agents J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Jones) are back in black, still busting up intergalactic perps by day and living lonely, near monastic lifestyles off the clock. When your co-workers are the most significant human interactions, you tend to get pretty attached, and J has grown rather fond of his partner K even though the irascible old coot is an emotional wasteland. Jones' craggy, wrinkled mug has a real world-weariness to it and his performance has taken on the hangdog comedic dimensions of a Droopy cartoon. Smith is his animated self, and here he gets not one, but two deadpan partners to bounce his eternally boyish charms off of. An interstellar lunatic called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes his max-security lunar prison, and makes good on his vow of revenge against K, by traveling back to his capture in 1969 and erasing his nemesis from the timeline and setting the stage for an alien invasion. MIB's new boss Emma Thompson (Rip Torn gets hastily killed off) figures out the scheme, and J dutifully charges to the rescue of his mentor using a high tech gizmo to plunge back to the era of mini-skirts, hippies and gas guzzling Detroit built roadsters, and still blatant racism.
The plot ensures that Jones had an easy shooting schedule, but he's ably replaced by Josh Brolin, who does a dead-on Tommy Lee impression: nailing the actor's laconic Texas drawl with the same precision he used to mock George W. Bush. The younger agent K is still a badass, but not nearly as flinty or cold, and we are continually teased that some upcoming trauma hardened his heart. This subplot lends some humanity to what would otherwise be a gimmick-laden whirl of CGI sparkles, and the easy chemistry and effortless agility of the stars keeps things buzzing.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld is as over-caffeinated as ever. His frenetic tone changes between comedy, action and pathos are quick enough to induce whiplash. Despite the spastic pace, the movie feels a little sluggish out of the gate, and only really hits its stride when Brolin hits the screen.
Flight of the Conchords cutup Jemaine Clement is buried under shark-like teeth, Klingon hair and thick goggles, and his villain is more goofy than menacing with his absurd vocal inflection somewhere between David Bowie and James Earl Jones. He's just a distraction in a flick filled with gags about bulky mid-century tech and weirdo mod icons like Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol being from outer space. The script is credited to no less than five writers, and feels patched together due to time-travel conundrums and some shaky math, which leaves certain actors not looking right for their character's presumed ages.
This is all as overly familiar and manufactured as any other franchise extender, but is just clever and amusing enough to justify getting the band back together for a bow, before these guys seriously become the Men in Grey.
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