Three thoughts I had while watching Men in Black 3: 1) Will Smith himself may, in fact, be an alien. It would explain why he apparently hasn’t aged physically since the first Men in Black film came out in 1997; 2) Despite his working his well-practiced motor-mouthed schtick, Smith is NOT what makes this movie work. He’s good, but he’s not who you’ll be talking about while you’re leaving the theater; and 3) This movie’s actually quite fun – it’s clever, well-paced, and manages to feel more like a movie and less like a payday for its stars, which is something that the previous sequel, 2002’s Men in Black 2, failed miserably to accomplish.
Yes, believe it or not, that last entry in the MiB series was ten years ago, and you might think that any script for a sequel after such a significant amount of time might avoid any mention of how long it’s been, to try to put the audience back into the same and place as the last time around, or even better, in the time and place of the original. But screenwriter Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy) goes in the opposite direction by embracing the time that’s passed and working it into the film’s plot.
Agents J and K (Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, respectively) have been partners for 14 years – still as good a team as ever in terms of dealing with problems arising from aliens living in disguise on Earth and keeping those aliens a secret from the unsuspecting public, but also still not very good at communicating with each other or even being friends. When an enemy with a very old grudge against K escapes from prison, travels back to 1969 and makes catastrophic changes in the timeline that result in the Earth being doomed in the present, J sends himself into the past to stop him. Once he gets there, he finds himself partnered with a very unexpected ally: a young K (Josh Brolin), who aside from the characteristic squinty eyes and drawl in his voice and being MiB’s premier agent seems very different from the gruff, tight-lipped K that J is so familiar with. Together, they set out to stop “Boris the Animal” (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords) from accomplishing his mission of revenge, and along the way J gets a tour of 1969 New York and its resident aliens, as well as learning a thing or two about the partner he thought he knew.
As far as time travel stories go, it’s not very original, admittedly – bad guy goes back into the past, changes something that results in doom and gloom, good guys have to go back and stop it.
But profound, ground-breaking storytelling isn’t what gets you into a theater to see an MiB movie, right? You go to see Tommy Lee Jones be gruff, Will Smith be a wiseass, and to laugh as the two of them brandish shiny silver “space guns” and battle ingeniously designed bizarre-looking aliens who often believe they look and act just like us.
There’s still a lot to like about that formula, but it’s not what makes MiB 3 really click. Instead, it’s what’s new to the series that makes the whole thing work. This movie, when all is said and done, belongs to Josh Brolin.
Brolin, who in films such as No Country For Old Men, W., True Grit, and even the horrendous box office bomb Jonah Hex has shown an uncanny ability to disappear into a role and fully inhabit a character, simply becomes Tommy Lee Jones. Arguably, not since Ewan McGregor channeled Sir Alec Guinness while playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels has an actor so convincingly portrayed a younger version of a well-established character. The portrayal is so good, in fact, that it extends to the chemistry with the co-star – Brolin’s interactions with Smith are just as engaging as Smith’s are with Jones. In a film full of aliens doing their best impersonations of humans, Brolin’s is the best impersonation of them all.
At 106 minutes, MiB 3 is longer than its predecessor, but whereas that film felt clunky and labored with its pacing and weak writing, this one breezes right along, wasting no time in getting you into the past and into the heart of the story. It’s as though Cohen and director Barry Sonnenfeld knew that Brolin’s screen time was the best part of the movie, and so they want you to see it as soon as possible.
Visually, the film one-ups the previous entries in the series, as it should considering that it now stands as the most expensive movie in history (production valued at $375 million). The aliens are creepier, more detailed, and in some cases more disgusting than ever – watch for a scene early in the film set in a Chinatown restaurant that is, of course, far more than what it seems for the best examples of this. It gets pretty gross, but gross has always been a distinctive part of the MiB hilarity – if THAT’S what you love about these movies, you won’t be disappointed.
Truth be told, that’s just about the only way you might be disappointed by MiB 3 – if you expect it to be something the other movies weren’t, or that the series has never been, which is deep, thoughtful, or profound. What it IS is a fun, satisfying return to very familiar territory and a vast improvement over the last installment. Go see it – you won’t feel like you need to neuralized afterward to forget the experience.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Men in Black 3
Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jermaine Clement, Emma Thompson, Alice Eve, and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and brief suggestive content.