Entertainment & Arts

Will Smith returns with a blast in the past

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3
Image caption Smith and Jones previously starred in 1997's Men In Black and its 2002 sequel

Ten years on from the last Men In Black movie, Will Smith is once again up to his neck in alien entities. BBC News met him in London, midway through a globe-trotting promotional tour.

Meeting Olympians in London one day, slapping a reporter in Moscow the next: yes, it's fair to say Will Smith has had an eventful week.

So perhaps it is not surprising that our interview during his latest promo campaign does not stick entirely to the script.

One moment the Hollywood actor is genially saluting me, a fellow Smith, as "a brother from another mother".

The next he is suggesting that "maybe your family owned my family at one point, and we took your name."

It has to be said that this journalist did not get up that morning expecting to have his forebears associated with an historical injustice by one of the world's most recognisable celebrities.

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Media captionWill Smith tries out Olympic sports with Team GB

Yet some response is clearly called for. "Well, you should come round for Christmas then," I propose in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Smith, to be frank, does not seem particularly impressed by my olive branch. But then it is not as if he is in need of a free meal.

With a phenomenally successful career that encompasses music, film and television, the Independence Day and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star has an estimated worth of around $200m (£127.5m).

He is also at the forefront of a familial dynasty, his wife Jada, son Jaden and daughter Willow enjoying their own success as performing and recording artists.

Things have been a little quiet on the Will front of late. His last film, the drama Seven Pounds, was released in 2008 and got a cool response from critics.

But now he is back in Men In Black 3, a third entry in a blockbuster film series that has so far grossed more than $1bn (£637m) worldwide.

'A little nervous'

The first Men In Black was released in 1997, with its first sequel following in 2002.

A decade on, is Smith confident audiences will be receptive to another helping of fantastical sci-fi comedy, this time presented in the divisive 3D format?

"I was a little nervous," the 43-year-old admits. "But I've been surprised on this tour just how powerful the black suit and the black glasses [worn by his character] are globally.

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Media captionWill Smith meets the BBC's Susanna Reid

"You only have to put [up] the title and people recognise it." And for the most part, he continues, "it's mostly fond memories."

"I never thought there would be a Men In Black 2 after Men In Black; I never thought there'd be a 3 after 2," says director Barry Sonnenfeld.

"You move on with your life and you don't think about it. But I knew if there was a Men In Black 3, the audience would be there for it."

For those unfamiliar with the series, the Men In Black films revolve around a team of secret government agents charged with policing the numerous extra-terrestrials living clandestinely on earth.

Their core elements are light-hearted action, elaborate special effects and the spirited, sparring interplay between Smith's Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones' older Agent K.

The twist this time around is a time-travel plot device that sees J journey back to 1969 to stop his partner being murdered by an alien adversary.

There he meets the younger K, played by Josh Brolin.

'Very risky'

The challenge of replacing one half of a very popular cinema double act is not lost on Brolin, best known hitherto for portraying George W Bush in Oliver Stone's W.

"The whole idea of severing this great iconic duo is very risky for all of us," nods Brolin, 44. "But it has nothing to do with replacing Tommy.

Image caption Brolin (left) makes his Men In Black debut as a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' character

"My goal was to not get in the way of the story and hopefully be seamless in inserting myself into this franchise.

"It's a really interesting premise to dive into that I think freshens up the whole story."

"The best dynamic is when J is a rookie, so we had to figure out how to get him to be a fish out of water," explains Smith.

"So having Tommy Lee Jones' character killed in the past and Agent J jumping back into the past to save him gave us the new environment for my character to be a rookie again."

Men In Black 3 will face some stiff competition from reigning box office champ The Avengers when it opens in the UK and US on Friday.

Battleship, another sci-fi property involving aliens, could not dislodge the comic book behemoth from the top of the North American box office chart over the weekend.

Sonnenfeld, though, is confident that there is enough distinct about his current venture to make it stand out from the crowd.

'Buddy movie'

"I think we sort of have our own genre," explains the film-maker, who also worked with Will Smith on the 1999 comedy Wild Wild West. "We're not in competition with big action movies.

"We're not The Avengers, and we're not [Alien prequel] Prometheus. I think we're a great buddy movie with aliens and science fiction and we're pretty unique."

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Media captionWill Smith speaks at his film's London premiere

Nor is he reticent when it comes to his picture's 3D visuals. "Truthfully and with all modesty, this is the best-looking 3D movie ever made," says the Addams Family and Get Shorty director.

"Will Smith is funnier in 3D; there's more energy to his movement. So I would say it is definitely worth the surcharge."

Back in Smith's interview suite, our brief encounter is drawing to a close. But the star of the show has not entirely forgotten our earlier jousting.

"I'll see you Christmas," he signs off. "I guess I'll be doing the cooking and cleaning, right?"

A mild jab, no more. And compared to Vitalii Sediuk, a Ukrainian reporter Smith slapped for trying to kiss him at his film's Moscow premiere, I got off fairly lightly.

Men In Black 3 is out in the UK and Ireland on Friday.

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