Men In Black 3
When Men in Black first hit theaters, it came as a surprise. Funny but not at the expense of telling a solid science fiction adventure story, it rightfully became a hit. (It also helped that it's a surprisingly breezy film – just under 90 minutes.) Then came the inevitable sequel that paid attention to all the wrong things from the first one, seemed sloppily made and tedious, and pretty much closed the book on the franchise.
So when Men in Black 3 was first announced, our rarefied nerd circles shrugged. When one sequel fails, chances are not good that it's going to get better. But what if we could pretend that second one didn't really happen?
That's not exactly what director Barry Sonnenfeld does with this outing, but he does turn back the clock. By adding time travel to the alien adventure, he gives the franchise a burst of energy. But what really saves it is that this clever idea suddenly has heart.
If you're coming for continuity from movie to movie, it's not really here. Men in Black isn't as insulting as, say, the Highlander franchise, but it's very clear that Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Etan Coen would rather you not pick too many nits. In fact, you can pretend that the second movie didn't happen at all, and instead at the end of the first movie Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) just didn't retire.
He still hasn't, and it's a good thing, too, because one of his most important cases is coming back to haunt him. Up on the moon, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has engineered his escape from a maximum security prison after forty years. Vowing revenge on the man who shot off his arm and imprisoned him, Boris pursues time travel to go back to his first failure and stop it from happening.
Of course, that means killing Agent K in 1969 and then leaving the Earth open for invasion by Boris' people in 2012. Like many blockbuster time travel stories, it may be best to not look too closely there, either.
What matters is that only K's partner J (Will Smith) remembers him as having lived. And that won't matter if the aliens destroy the Earth. What drives J, though, is the loss of someone who's more than a partner. Despite K being emotionally closed off, he's the person who matters most in J's life. And just before he was ripped from time, he clearly had something important he needed to tell J.
Perhaps 1969 really was this alien, and that, too, is a clever conceit of the script. J may know his way around alien races, but the cusp of social change? It's like Life on Mars.
But also to the script's credit, it makes fleeting nods to those possibilities while staying focused on the adventure. This is still pursuit of a dangerous alien assassin, and anything else would only get in the way. Though the movie also sets up the mystery of why K is so closed off when his younger self (Josh Brolin) seems almost occasionally happy, it's all done in little details that never distract from the plot.
Actually, we get one side-track which underscores the theme of the movie. In order to defeat Boris, the Men in Black have to protect the lone survivor of a race that experiences all possibilities in time and space at once. Played by a bright eyed Michael Stuhlbarg, "Griffin" knows how bad things can be, and finds each moment of grace to be a miracle – the lesson that both K and J need to learn. Maybe even Sonnenfeld had to learn it, because MIB 3 eschews the cynicism of the first two, and though it still has dark humor, it clearly agrees with Griffin.
By going into the past, the movie has also found imagination. One of the failings of the second was constantly trying to touch base with all the things that people liked about the first. Sonnenfeld and crew still make nods – the pug gets subtly referenced and the java-addicted worm guys pop up for a few seconds – but 1969 causes the franchise to reinvent.
Thus the neutralizer was once the size of an MRI machine but looks like a carnival attraction. The agents still have "space guns", as J puts it, but he's surprised by what the cars have under their chassis.
And you know what else MIB 3 has besides heart and inventiveness? Fun.
That starts with the delicious creepiness of Clement's Boris, an alien that manages to be frightening and funny (and owes a lot to DC's Lobo). Jones and Smith still have the chemistry, and Smith seems pretty relaxed while still giving J more depth than you might expect.
The biggest in-joke of the movie, and it's a good one, is the excellence of Brolin's young Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. That's an inadequate word for it – how about inhabiting Jones' skin? Brolin's K could easily age into being Jones, and yet his portrayal also has a life to it that feeds Smith's character. In shots where Smith just stares at Brolin, it could be taken as either admiration for the acting or quite simply that J realizes just how much he loves K.
Because of that, we might realize how much we like the franchise again, and with Brolin on board (plus Emma Thompson as new Agency chief O), with some more twists and turns, maybe we'll want a fourth.