How do you feel about men in black suits? Black shoes? Narrow (but not too narrow) black ties? Call me strange, but I’ve always had a weakness for that look, ever since Jake and Elwood Blues of “The Blues Brothers” perfected the mode in 1980. Always trust the guy in the suit, as my granny used to say.
Then in 1997, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones came on the cinema scene wearing the same slim suits, polished black shoes, the funeral ties that were somehow cooler than Bulgari. And like the Blues Brothers, they topped off this outfit with black Ray-Ban shades.
This was the outrageously fun “Men in Black,” in which the Smith-Jones duo play agents working for a clandestine Manhattan-based organization combatting “the scum of the universe”: dastardly beings from outer space. Unlike the Blues Brothers, R&B wasn’t the duo’s thing (though of course, Smith could be relied upon for some class rap). But they did have some nifty high-tech artillery to zap aliens into a splattering mass of goo and green mucus. None of it ever messed up their suits, a sartorial detail that deserved more attention than it got. Anyway, need I tell you these guys were it? Need I tell you I swooned?
Fast forward 15 years and the “Men in Black” franchise has returned with a second sequel. Its last outing in 2002 didn’t go over that well at the box office. My guess is that it was too soon after 9/11 to watch creepy-crawlies take over Broadway.
The filmmakers then waited an entire decade before coming out with “Men in Black 3,” and the sight of the old gang reuniting oughta choke a few throats and bring on some tears.
One of the first things that happens is a funeral for Zed (Rip Torn), the Men in Black agency’s boss whom enthusiasts will remember as a craggy old guy. And after the typically unemotional eulogy given by Agent K (Jones), the new chief steps onto the podium. This is Agent O (Emma Thompson), who may or may not have had a fling with K many years ago, and whose authoritative presence makes the super-futuristic agency resemble the interiors of the British Parliament.
This is director Barry Sonnenfeld and co.’s attempt to breathe new life into the “MiB” series, and they do so with that familiar device of going back into the past. Way back to 1969, when Manhattan was full of gas-guzzling convertibles and the Roosevelt Hotel catered to rich tourists carrying expensive luggage without little wheels. Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) holds grand parties at The Factory where ultra-skinny models toy with pastrami sandwiches. Man got to walk on the moon, women wore panty hose and heels, and the Mets won the World Series. What a great year to visit.
Agent J (Will Smith) makes the time trip by jumping off the Chrysler Building (don’t ask) — just to save his partner Agent K, whose nemesis space alien Boris the Animal (Jemain Clement) has gone back in time to kill K and prevent himself from having been locked up in a lunar prison. Boris has big plans to destroy Earth in 2012, and for that, he needs to get the young and sprightly K (played by Josh Brolin) out of the way in 1969.
Don’t worry yourself if this sounds like a retread of “The Terminator.” It is, and boy does it feel old. But originality doesn’t seem to be a priority item on Sonnenfeld’s agenda. Rather, “Men in Black 3” goes for such concepts as longevity, with an unspoken promise that we’ll see more of these reassuring black suits in an increasingly uncertain future.
Speaking of reassuring, few faces in cinema today inspire a sense of security like that of Tommy Lee Jones. At 65, he has no truck with artifice and makes no bones about sticking to just one role: himself. As the cranky, thorny, unfunny Agent K, he displayed some mighty good physical moves in the original “Men in Black,” but now he looks most comfortable when sitting by the fireside in his retro apartment.
As Agent J says while they’re battling aliens: “I’m getting too old for this; I can only imagine how you feel.” And for a split second the camera stays on K’s face looking hurt and embarrassed, struggling to come up with a witty rejoinder and failing. Such moments can only be carved out by a true artisan, and remind you how much acting relies on the ability to mute the ego.
This “Men in Black” doesn’t shine as brilliantly as the previous two films, but just like them, the rather haphazard package is extremely likable. You wouldn’t want to date these men in black, but on the other hand, in the event of an alien invasion, I’d take them over Bruce Willis any time. I’m pretty sure my granny would have agreed.