It’s been ten years since the last Men in Black film. (Men in Black 2 came out in 2o02, and the first Men in Black came out back in 1997.) That’s a long, long time for a movie series to lie fallow. Is there an example of a sequel to a film franchise being released after such a long dry spell in which the new sequel was any good? I’m hard-pressed to think of one, though I can think of many examples where the opposite was true, and the long-awaited sequel disappointed fans terribly. The Godfather Part III. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of the first two Men in Black films. I remember quite liking the first one, and being disappointed by the second. I was excited by the prospect of a third film being made, because I definitely feel the concept still has plenty of juice, but I was dubious as to whether they could capture lighting in a bottle after so much time. Well, to summarize, Men in Black 3 isn’t nearly as good as I had hoped, but it’s not as bad as I had feared (or as I’d heard it was). It’s an entertaining film, though a frustrating one. The concept of the film is solid, and with that story idea and these performers, there is a great film in there somewhere. Men in Black 3 isn’t it, though.
As I just wrote, the central concept of the film is strong, and I can see why this story lured all the major players (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld) back to the table. A vicious bad-guy who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) had put away forty years previously breaks out of prison and uses a time machine to go back in time and kill K in the past. Agent J (Will Smith) must travel back to 1969 to save the life of the young Agent K, played in the past by Josh Brolin.
The problem (well, there are many problems with the film, but let’s start with this one) is that the first section of the film, set in the present day, is absolutely terrible.
Let’s start with the prologue, in which Boris the Animal breaks out of the MIB’s prison on the moon, and begins his plan for vengeance against Agent K. Director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage this sequence. It has a weird, goofy tone. In my opinion, if the filmmakers wanted to set up Boris as a real threat to our heroes, this scene should have been played straight, and we should have really been afraid of Boris. The prison guards shouldn’t have been such doofuses, and the prison break should have been so over-the-top obvious. (A bodacious babe with a cake with bright pink frosting comes to visit Boris? Oh, yeah, sure, that’s not suspicious at all.) Think about the opening to Ghostbusters. That’s one of the funniest comedies ever made, but that first scene (with the librarian ghost) isn’t funny at all — it’s creepy and SCARY. That sets the tone for the film that there are real stakes to the story being told. (And if Mr. Sonnenfeld and his team felt differently, if they wanted the first scene in their sci-fi comedy to be funny, well then they should have actually made the scene FUNNY! As it is, it’s not funny at all, just sort of weird.)
Things don’t get better from there. I felt there was something totally off in the scenes between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. We don’t get any sense of their friendship and their partnership. They bicker, but it’s not comedic bickering, it’s more like “these two men really can’t stand each other” bickering, which is off-putting. (When the previous installment of your franchise was a decade ago, you need to re-establish all of the relationships, you can’t take it for granted that the audience will carry over memories of good-will from the previous films…) Tommy Lee Jones plays K as completely depressed and sad right from the start, even before he gets wind of Boris’ escape and the bad memories he has of his encounter with Boris from forty years prior get stirred up. It’s weird. Since Tommy Lee Jones starts the movie playing his character as totally broken and lonely, when K does realize that Boris is on the loose again, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on him.
Meanwhile, Will Smith, faced with Tommy Lee Jones’ dead, sour-puss performance, way over-compensates by raising his voice and mugging constantly at the camera. It’s just as off-putting as Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, though similar in that it is NOT ALL FUNNY.
Thankfully though, after that tough initial slog, the movie comes to life as soon as Agent J travels back through time to 1969. A huge, huge reason for the success of this part of the film is Josh Brolin’s spectacular performance as a young Tommy Lee Jones. It’s an absolute revelation of a performance. Mr. Brolin is able to capture and embody the spirit of Tommy Lee Jones, but the performance isn’t just an impersonation. Mr. Brolin really makes the role sing, bringing life to the young Agent K and making him into a fun, endearing character. Mr. Brolin’s performance is so good that he actually elevates Will Smith’ performance as well. Whereas in the scenes with K and J in the present, it seemed like Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones were in totally different movies, I loved the relationship between young K and J. Mr. Smith and Mr. Brolin have great chemistry (it reminds me of my memories of the chemistry Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones shared back in the first Men in Black film), and Mr. Smith tones down his over-acting and allows himself to really interact with Mr. Brolin’s character. Their relationship is a lot of fun and — thank the gods — actually FUNNY. (I love the scene of the two men driving in the car, in which J tries really hard not to keep staring at the young K, but just can’t help himself.)
The 1969 stuff is fun, and while throwing Andy Warhol into the mix seems like an obvious joke (though it’s always fun to see Bill Hader), I loved the idea of connecting the story to the 1969 Apollo 11 launch. There’s something really RIGHT about that notion, and connecting this loony sci-fi series with that iconic moment of REAL outer-space exploration was exciting. Though good lord I wish the writers had at least TRIED to create some pretense under which J and K’s actions in the past wouldn’t have been totally obvious to every single person watching that launch.
The whole time travel story in the film is a mess and makes almost no sense. I liked that they tried to be clever and unique with the time travel devices, making up their own rules and not hewing to any pre-conceived notions. I don’t know why one passes through the prehistoric era when traveling from 2012 to 1969, but OK, that’s how the time travel devices in this film work, I can live with that and maybe think that’s neat. But, really, think about the story of this film for two minutes and I bet you, like me, can poke a million holes in it. The reason given for J remembering K, when no one else does, after Boris travels back in time and wipes him from existence, is pathetically flimsy. And come on, Agent O (Emma Thompson, wasted in the film) tells J that the MIB have totally locked up and controlled all time-travel devices, but somehow Boris is able to walk into this alien’s shop and he has the hand-held time-travel devices right there behind the counter, ready to go? And once Boris realizes that J has followed him into the past, what was his plan, exactly? You get a fun Future Biff meets Young Biff scene, but that story goes nowhere. The two Boris’ just team up to do the same thing the original 1969 Boris was going to do.
Which brings me to another problem. The film establishes that, originally, young K defeated Boris in 1969. OK, so future Boris travels back in time to mess that up, but so does J. So now instead of it being one-on-one (K versus Boris), it’s two-on-two. Still decent odds for our heroes, particularly since we know that K was able to defeat Boris, all on his lonesome, the first time. The movie tries to make a big deal out of J not wanting to tell young K what happened at Cape Canaveral, and trying desperately to stop young K from going to Florida because J is sure he will die there. But why would that be? If young K could stop Boris once, surely K and J can stop two Borises now. It just doesn’t seem like such a threat to our heroes.
I was also disappointed that we never really get a pay-off as to what the horrible thing was that happened to Agent K in the past that turned him into such a sourpuss. I liked the twist at the end, when we learn what happened at Cape Canaveral after our heroes think the danger has passed (even though it really doesn’t make any sense in terms of the continuity of the first two films). But it was a nice emotional moment. But was that the horrible thing that the movie keeps hinting at? Yes, a really bad thing happens, but it doesn’t seem to be so devastating to K that it changes him so dramatically. Are we supposed to believe that it wasn’t the event itself, but keeping that a secret from J that caused K to become so closed-off? That can’t be, because K was pretty much like that from when we first met him in the first film. So the ending was a let-down, because we don’t really ever get to that powerful moment of change for K that I felt the movie kept building us up for.
And we also don’t get a great pay-off between the two characters once J returns to the restored future. What does present-day K know about what went down? How will this change their relationship? That frustrating final scene skirts all of those juicy questions. I kept thinking of the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Time’s Arrow,” in which Picard and co. get thrown back in time and encounter Guinan back in the past, on Earth. There’s a wonderful moment, at the end of the second episode, after Picard has returned to present day. He walks into Ten-Forward, and it’s immediately clear that his and Guinan’s relationship with one another has changed, now that he has discovered the secret she had kept from him for so long. I wanted that type of pay-off scene for the end of this movie, but I didn’t get it.
To focus on a positive, I did LOVE Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, the alien with the ability to see into multiple possible future timelines. It’s a neat idea for a character, and I adored the innocence and wonder, mixed with a touch of both the haunted and the addled, that Mr. Stuhlbarg (so great as the lead in A Serious Man — click here for my review; and I’ve also been enjoying him in the first season of Boardwalk Empire, which my wife and I are making our way through now) brought to the role. He’s dynamite.
I also loved the look and design of Boris the Animal and his horrible crab-like creatures that live in his body. Creepy and gross and absolutely wonderful.
OK, as is often the case with my reviews, I’ve probably devoted more time to this anaylsis of Men in Black 3 than this light film really deserves. Had this movie been released two or three years after the second installment, I’d probably think more highly of it. But coming a decade later, it’s natural to attach higher expectations to the film, expectations to which Men in Black 3 doesn’t really live up. It’s not a great comedy, nor is it a great sci-fi film. But it’s fun and enjoyable and you certainly don’t need to think to hard about it (in fact, it’s better if you don’t.) It’s worth seeing the film just for Josh Brolin’s magnificent performance as a young Tommy Lee Jones, but there’s aren’t many more reasons than that to recommend it.