Men in Black seems like a strange concept to bring back. While the first two movies were fairly successful, it’s not as if it spawned the kind of demand that turns a movie into a franchise. The original movie was a fun Will Smith vehicle, one of those movies that propelled him to his current status and maybe the last real movie star, that relic of the 90s that can sell an entire picture on the name of the lead alone. Even Men in Black II, a decade ago now, drifted lazily in five years after its predecessor, shoved full of tired retreads of old gags and generally a bloated waste of everyone’s time.
So now Men in Black 3 comes, at a time when Will Smith isn’t launching movies like he used to and where these sorts of high concept pictures have a hard time gaining traction if they don’t have a guy in a mask or cape attached to them. The movie itself was plagued with production problems: an incredibly bloated budget; a production that ran on for ages without even a full, finished script; and of course, a set of characters that just doesn’t hold the same weight as it did around the turn of the millennium. With all that against it, how does Men in Black 3 fare?
Okay. Sometimes worse, sometimes better, but mostly it’s just okay.
If that seems like I’m damning it with faint praise, that’s because I am. Men in Black 3 is an infuriating mishmash of cool concepts and really old jokes pulled out of mothballs for a third time. The first half hour in fact is a whole collection of retread jokes from the first two movies, so far removed from their original context that they barely make sense, much less are any fun. Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is still uptight and crotchety (more so than ever), and Agent J (Will Smith) is still the young guy who walks into situations without knowing better. Normal people (some in celebrity cameos) turn out to be silly aliens, everyone makes a joke about how they were surprised X or Y wasn’t human.
Except this is fourteen years after the first movie’s setting, and J has been dealing with aliens every day of his career for that decade and a half. You’d think by now he’d be at least competent, but no. He continues to serve his function as the audience surrogate far after it makes sense for him to do so, and he continues to blunder his way through really poorly staged set pieces far past the point of credibility. This opening is by far the worst part of Men in Black as a franchise, and was every fear realised: the same show we’ve seen before, with everyone looking older and more desperate.
Thankfully when the plot kicks into gear things start to turn around. An alien assassin named Boris (an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement, chewing scenery and stealing scenes) breaks out of jail to get vengeance on Agent K for shooting off his arm and locking him up back in the 60s. He grabs a time machine, makes his way back to the 60s, and apparently deletes Agent K from history. Not only does this remove K from everyone’s memories (aside from J, due to plot convenience) but brings about an alien invasion that K originally was around to stop. So it’s up to J to take the other time machine, head back to 1969, and both stop Boris and prevent K’s death.
This is a lot of set-up, but once J lands in 1969 the movie really picks up steam. Sure, there’s your usual array of fish-out-of-water jokes, especially some racially tinged ones, but Will Smith still has the charisma on screen to get away with being annoyed with how backward people are and sidestepping every other problem with a neuralizer. And yes, there’s a bunch of jokes about famous figures being not what they appear (Andy Warhol being a disgruntled MiB agent played by Bill Hader being the most notable) but it really boils down to J running into 1969’s version of Agent K.
Young K is played by Josh Brolin, who manages not only to do an amazing Tommy Lee Jones impression but brings a lot more humanity and devil-may-care attitude to the role that’s been pigeonholed as ‘the straight man’ since day one. This K emotes, is somewhat whimsical, knows how to have fun and can take risks, all buried under that same down home stoicism. It’s a nice change of pace, and allows the two actors to play off of each other in a way that dispenses with the usual time travel tropes (particularly, and thankfully, K believes the time travel story with almost zero prompting) in favor of just letting these personalities riff off of one another. That’s undoubtedly due to the lack of script meaning a bunch of the middle of the movie being assembled on the day and in editing, but it gives it a sort of manic energy that coasts fairly well on enthusiasm alone.
Unfortunately, there’s still a plot here, and eventually the running around comes to a head, a convoluted mess of time travel goals and ticking clocks that involves two villains, our agents, and the Apollo 11 rocket launch. The emotional stuff is solid, and probably the best beats the series has had since the first movie, though it’s obvious the movie takes heavy inspiration from these types of time-travel heavy episodes of Doctor Who. If you’re going to steal sci-fi, I suppose you should steal from the best TV version of that on the air right now, but it definitely feels derivative down to even the twists if you’re familiar with the Doctor’s adventures.
More problematic, these big moments necessitate action beats, and really this is where the movie crumbles. Men in Black has always been a franchise that’s had a better universe than it has had stories, and that remains true here. You have infinite wonders, an array of cool aliens littering the background of some scenes, and at the end of the day your set pieces are a car chase and a shoot and slug-fest? It’s conventional and more than a little dull, hampered by a lot of really flimsy CG that struggles to make it not look like a cartoon. It’s a real shame, because the aliens themselves look great (Boris is creepy in ways that grow increasingly weirder as the movie moves on) with a ton of practical make-up effects augmented with CG. But all that creature work is window-dressing, and the movie seems most interested in the plain action set pieces that any other movie could give you in a different coat of paint.
Then again, I went into this with the expectations for a real trainwreck, so the fact that I'm bothered by so much nearly-realized potential is a minor miracle in itself. Men in Black 3 isn’t a great movie, or even a very good movie, but it has hints of both of those things in it. It’s unabashedly cheesy sci-fi action-adventure, and I appreciate that they’ve managed to make that work. And it’s a damn sight better than Men in Black II, a movie that didn’t have a single new idea in its head. This isn’t a wildly successful franchise revitalization, and given the development hell and hefty price tag, I can’t imagine anyone’s going to rush out and make more of these, but the movie works more than it doesn’t, and manages to remind me why everyone cared about these guys in this universe so long ago. Hey, it could have been a lot worse.
NOTE: I saw the movie in 2D, projected digitally. It seemed fine, but it’s obvious scenes were staged for 3D and the whole thing seemed weirdly overlit. Given my qualms about the quality of the CG, I wonder if it wouldn’t play better in 3D where the seams blur easier due to the technology. That’s not a recommendation, but … hey, probably couldn’t hurt.
Trailer: Men In Black 3
Guys? Josh Brolin's Tommy Lee Jones impression is kind of uncanny. It's...weirding me out.
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|Name||Men in Black III|
|US Release||May 25, 2012|
|UK Release||May 25, 2012|
|AUS Release||May 24, 2012|
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|Alias(es)||Men in Black 3
Men in Black 3D