Ten years after the previous, widely disliked sequel, and long after the “franchise” slipped from the public mind, Men In Black 3 finally chugged into theaters on Memorial Day weekend. It had a troubled production history, having begun filming before the script was even finished. It shows.
There’s fun to be had in MIB 3, but little of it comes from Tommy Lee Jones or Will Smith. The former looks incredibly old and bored. Smith mostly does a half-hearted riff on his classic “Agent J” routine. It feels like watching a Led Zeppelin tribute band crank up “Stairway to Heaven” for the thousandth time. Smith even does a variation on his uncomfortable “smart black man confronting primitive racism” routine from The Wild, Wild West, and it’s sad to admit it was funnier back in that otherwise woeful film, because he was trying harder.
The show is thoroughly stolen by Josh Brolin, who does a dead-on, hilariously funny impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones. Brolin plays the 1960s-era version of Agent K, after Smith’s Agent J indulges in a bit of time travel. Brolin couldn’t be funnier, and the best scriptwriting in the movie is poured into making him seem like a more optimistic, happier version of the same character.
There’s a lot of lazy writing in the movie, which feels like a series of sketch comedy routines stitched into a feature-length film. A little over halfway through the story, a lovable alien “Rain Main” savant who can see alternate timelines unfolding into the future is introduced, and while his first couple of scenes are clever, he turns into a crutch for the writers to keep the rather labored plot lumbering forward. Several of the characters are given catch phrases to repeat over and over again – a crude mechanism for eking out “callback” laughs. Little is done with the 60s period setting where most of the story takes place, beyond the sly visual humor of making all the MIB technology and aliens look appropriately retro-futuristic.
The original film presented a fairly solid buddy-cop caper, with loopy science-fiction sarcasm applied to the tropes of a simple police procedural: gathering clues, leaning on snitches, and shoe-leather detective work. MIB 3 has the same type of scenes, but they don’t make as much sense. For example, there’s a protracted shakedown of an alien informant, involving the use of his head as a bowling ball, that echoes the encounter with Tony Shalhoub’s regenerating black-market fence in the first movie… but yields information the MIB agents could have gotten by simply opening a door five feet away.
The alien super-villain is creepy and physically menacing, but he lacks anything like the inferiority complex that gave Edgar the Bug from the first movie such wonderful comic pathos to mix with his deadly villainy. A very weak version of the same humor is attempted by making MIB 3’s Boris the Animal sincerely offended when people refer to him as “the Animal,” but that’s symptomatic of the problem facing the entire production: it’s a weak copy of something truly special. Fortunately, the original Men in Black was so good that a weak copy is still sporadically entertaining.
What made the first movie so effective was its wonderful focus, and that’s what this meandering sequel, and the growing MIB “franchise,” lacks. 1997’s Men in Black is a remarkably short movie, but it introduced an extremely clever concept, memorable characters, and a rich back story without wasting a moment of its running time. Its science fiction was, for the most part, vaguely respectable, with a certain internal consistency that made its world seem plausible. It found humor in a crazy situation, rather than throwing absurd nonsense on the screen to get a cheap laugh.
And the first movie had something the franchise quickly rescinded: character development. Men in Black 2 erased the first movie’s character arc for Agent K… and now we’re back into Ghostbusters II territory, resetting a relationship between Agents J and K that feels like it hasn’t changed a bit in fourteen years. The best part of Men in Black 3 is that, thanks to Josh Brolin and a strangely… deep ending to a largely frivolous story, we get some character development in reverse for Agent K, and it actually does help explain why he still treats J like a rookie after such a long, and presumably eventful, partnership.
It might have been better to leave the details of the MIB world in the audience’s imagination after the credits to the first film rolled, and I generally dislike “prequels,” but if we’re going to get a fourth film someday, I hope it stars Josh Brolin and somebody else who really wants to be in it.