‘Men in Black 3’

Josh Brolin and Will Smith in Men in Black 3You approach a sequel to a 10-year-old movie — that movie itself a somewhat tired rehash of an original movie made 15 years ago — with trepidation. What reason can there be for “Men in Black 3” to exist other than to greedily scoop more of the box-office haul the first two movies?

What made the original 1997 movie so much fun was its complete novelty: It was the alien-invasion version of “Ghostbusters” only much funnier since stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones played their black-suited federal agents with earnest seriousness, which made the goofy things they did when they zapped aliens into extraterrestrial goo or performed special effects-aided slapstick all the funnier.

Turns out the minds behind “MIB3” did go back to the drawing board to re-establish the comic foundation of the film series based on Lowell Cunningham’s Malibu Comic. While nothing can rival the crazy charm of the original film, “MIB3” comes damn close.

The comedy firm of Smith and Jones slots back nicely into the original roles, that of the smarty-pants junior partner to the no-nonsense, tight-to-the-vest veteran agent … or so we’re seduced into thinking. They bicker and feud like an old married couple only Smith’s Agent J begins to realize how precious little he actually knows about the taciturn Agent K.

Then the fate of the world, the thing that is invariably at stake in all “MIB” movies, demands time travel. Which means Agent J must not only journey back to 1969 to save Agent K’s life, but in so doing meets Agent K’s much younger self and learns the answer to his question “Whatever happened to you?”

Now here’s where the movie gets wickedly funny. Playing the much younger Tommy Lee Jones is none other than his co-star in “No Country For Old Men” and “In the Valley of Elah,” Josh Brolin. When I say Brolin does a spot-on impression of Jones, I don’t mean like Rich Little doing Nixon, which was an exaggerated imitation of mannerisms and personality ticks, but an interpretation of a well-known actor playing a particularly well-known movie character — an impersonation that works on so many levels and each one of them funny that this needs its own category for the Oscars. It’s dead-on spectacular.

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black 3As with any “MIB” movie, the less discussion of the plot, the better. The fate of the world this time has something to do with the 1969 Apollo 11 launch from Cape Canaveral to the moon; a villainous alien called Boris (a just-right Jemaine Clement), aka Boris the Animal but he really hates being called that; and the secret origins of the Agents J & K friendship.

The ride includes some nifty new alien creatures both modern day and 1969 versions, which are pleasingly retro; even niftier monocycles for the men in black; and an awesome time leap off New York City’s Chrysler Building that takes Agent J through a truncated version of the origins of the planet.

There are also two creatures out of time due extra kudos here: One is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Griffin, an anxious though friendly alien with the damning gift of being able to see all possible outcomes in any sequential set of events, and Bill Hader’s Andy Warhol, actually a MIB undercover agent. Only Warhol hates his cover, that of an outré artiste who paints soup cans!

It is also during this sequence where Agents J and K the Younger crash Warhol’s The Factory in 1969 that you learn that all models at all periods of time are aliens. The minute you hear this you say to yourself: Of course, that’s true. Why didn’t I already know that!

So you see what kind of sly humor writer Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder,” “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”) sneaks into his chock-full-of-jokes screenplay.

What’s more, I believe it can be said Cohen is one of the few if not the only Harvard grad with a degree in Yiddish working successfully in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Another young/older double casting comes with Agent O, the agency’s head, played in modern day by Emma Thompson and in 1969 by Alice Eve. This is the one plot thread that never really ravels. It’s meant to chart a tenuous romantic relationship between O and K but it’s never more than just OK. Maybe “MIB4” can explore this in great dimension.

Returning director Barry Sonnenfeld has lost none of his comic chops. He gracefully blends the most fantastic visual effects (supervised by Ken Ralston and Jay Redd) and creature make-up (by Rick Baker) with the wit and comic byplay generated by J and K, both older and younger versions.

So, yes indeed, “MIB3” more than justifies its existence in cinemas. It defines how a summer tentpole extravaganza should look and act. It’s a neat juggling act between snarky satire and self-parody, a pleasing fusion of big-budget effects and human comedy and a refreshing reintroduction to one of the best comedy acts since Hope and Crosby set out on all those road pictures.

Opens: May 25 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures in association with Hemisphere Media Capital presents an Amblin Entertainment production in association with P+M Image Nation
Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhbarg, Alice Eve, Bill Hader, David Rasche
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenwriter: Etan Cohen
Based on the Malibu Comic by: Lowell Cunningham
Producers: Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, G. Mac Brown
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Bo Welch
Music: Danny Elfman
Visual effects supervisors: Ken Ralston, Jay Redd
Alien make-up effects: Rick Baker
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Editor: Don Zimmerman
PG-13 rating, 106 minutes