Far better than I expected it to be, Men in Black 3 delivers a much more worthy sequel than the last installment but with a clunky beginning it doesn’t manage to recapture the magic of the first one.
When we rejoin J ( Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) we find the two in a bit of a rut. K has gotten surlier and J has gotten chattier. The loss of longtime boss Zed doesn’t help matters much as J is genuinely concerned about K’s lack of emotion. Things get worse when a routine call at a Chinese food restaurant leads to a gun fight that reveals K’s old arch nemesis Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has escaped from specially designed prison on the moon and bears a pretty big grudge against K for not only taking one of his arms but also causing the rest of his race to go extinct. Bent on revenge, Boris goes back in time and murders K before he has a chance to stop the impending invasion and foil his plan. J, the only one who remembers how thing should be, travels back in time to stop Boris and in doing so is forced to team up with a younger version of K in 1969 (Josh Brolin).
Men in Black 3 is kind of an odd film in a way. The first 20 minutes or so of screen time before J goes back in time are almost painful to watch. The shoot out in the Chinese place is cool and well choreographed but the chemistry between J and K seems off and everything seems very forced. All of my fears going into the film from relevance to ability to execute seemed to be realized. I am not really sure what was going on here, although the script rewrites and a major pause in filming probably had a lot to do with it, as the jump in quality between these opening scenes and J’s arrival in 1969 is enormously jarring.
As soon as J goes back in time, particularly once Josh Brolin’s younger K shows up, the movie seems to be a whole different animal altogether. The jokes start hitting, the chemistry engages and the concept no longer feels so forced. It seems odd that the J and K chemistry would feel better when one of the members is played by a different actor than the original but that is what happens here.
It would have been easy for the film to really play up the fish out of water differences between the two time periods and make J bumble around in the late 60′s but aside from a few gags here and there, the movie doesn’t really belabor the point. Instead, the focus is on J and K’s relationship and how different K is in the past than he is in the future. This gets a little muddled in terms of the mythology as this film ignores K’s lost love from the first film but that could be easily enough given the rules MiB has about relationships, particularly with people you knew before you were an agent. No one in the script bothers to actually that but whatever, the primary focus is on J and K here and that is where it really should be anyway.
Josh Brolin should take a lot of the credit here as his K is flawless and manages to capture the classic MiB feel in a way that Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t manage to tap into. It could be that Jones’s performance is tired and uninteresting because the character is tired and uninterested but there is no sense of fun in Jones here and while that might serve the story it is deadly to the series which is based primarily on the J and K relationship. Will Smith plays J a bit more earnestly than he has in the past a more down to business attitude. He still cracks wise but it seems that the strain on the relationship between the two characters takes its toll on J as well as you can tell his heart just isn’t in it. Once he is paired with Brolin, the sense of fun comes back and J is much more like his old self, albeit a more experienced and concerned self than in the past two movies. For his part, Jemaine Clement walks a fine line between goofiness and intensity but, despite teetering a time or two, he manages to generally maintain that balance throughout the film.
From the technical side, series director Barry Sonnenfeld goes a long way in making up for Wild Wild West and RV here with fairly gorgeous visuals and well choreographed action. The pacing is steady and sure handed for the most part, at least once the movie officially ‘kicks in.’ Effects master Rick Baker does his best work of the series here as well and his alien and technology designs are fantastic. The retro equipment seen in the 1969 MiB headquarters is spot on and feels just right especially when put next to the things that J brings with him.
An interesting thing about MiB 3 is that in many ways it eschews what a lot of sequels do by not cramming every possible reference to previous installments that they can and making sure older characters are included. There is the necessary housekeeping to catch up the audience but the film doesn’t feel the need to quote the first two films or repeat itself structurally or . Given this, MiB 3 renders the second film kind of obsolete and reveals it to be the uninspired retreat that it was. This is a new experience and a new story which is always more interesting than the first story re-told a new way. MiB 3 could have been better, sure, but it gets points for trying to go a different way and for trying to use heart and storytelling to do it.
Conclusion [8.0 out of 10]
Your mileage may vary on this score depending on the level of affection you have for the series in the first place. If I weren’t a fan of the first film, then this one probably drops to a 6.5 or 7. A lot of this movie plays on the relationship established in the previous films so if you didn’t care then, you won’t care now. For me, however, it was a fun ride and I enjoyed it despite that terrible opening and occasional script issues. If you are a fan of the previous movies, you will probably dig this one too.