Sequels to fish-out-of-water comedies make progressively less sense the longer a series continues. By the time Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles rolled around in 2001, 15 years after the first Crocodile Dundee became a surprise blockbuster, the title character had been given an awfully long time to grow acclimated to those kooky Americans. Men In Black 3 finagles its way out of this predicament by literally resetting the clock with a time-travel premise that makes Will Smith both a contemporary intergalactic cop in the late 1960s and a stranger to Josh Brolin, who plays the younger version of Smith’s stone-faced future partner, Tommy Lee Jones.
Smith returns in Men In Black 3 as a veteran agent of a secret organization dedicated to policing the earth’s many extraterrestrials. He’s forced to travel back to 1969 to prevent an evil alien (a shockingly effective, nearly unrecognizable Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords, playing sort of a psychotic extraterrestrial-biker serial killer) from destroying the world by killing Brolin. Smith is aided in his quest by an elfin, time-jumping alien with psychic powers played by another Coen brothers veteran, A Serious Man star Michael Stuhlbarg.
Men In Black 3 lacks the novelty of the first film, and its take on the late ’60s feels an awful lot like a psychedelic dress-up party, all broad caricatures and groovy vibes. But the film is largely redeemed by an unexpected emotional resonance befitting a Steven Spielberg production. Jones’ sad eyes betray a pervasive pain his purposefully spare dialogue only hints at, while the perfectly cast Brolin conveys hints of playfulness and warmth while staying true to the craggy stoicism at the character’s core. Men In Black 3 benefits from a cast as equipped to handle drama as action-adventure and comedy. In the abstract, Stuhlbarg’s twinkly-eyed sidekick suggests Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2 by way of late-period Robin Williams with an alien twist, but Stuhlbarg makes a character that easily could have come across as precious into a surprisingly palatable, even charming man. Barry Sonnenfeld’s mildly overachieving film isn’t essential, but it finds just enough ways to justify its existence beyond the insatiable demands of commerce.