Men in Black II is one bad sequel. Everything the first film got right the second film painfully got wrong. Will Smith played Will Smith, the funny-for-two-minutes pug from the first film sang because someone thought it was funny, a two-headed Johnny Knoxville showed up for some reason, and Rosario Dawson was just, well, kind of there. That’s what the second installment was in a nutshell: “just there,” a limp and lifeless blockbuster.
How does this 10-years-later sequel fare in comparison? Saying it’s a vast improvement is too easy, since even if this third installment is utterly banal, it’d still look favorable in comparison. For the most part, Men in Black III corrects past mistakes, even going as far to capture some of the original film’s magic.
The film begins with Boris, played by an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement escaping a prison (which is on the frickin’ moon!). Once Boris has broken out, he plans to get revenge on the man who took his right arm: Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). The villain travels back to 1969 in attempt to kill the younger K (Josh Brolin), who also foiled his world domination scheme.
To save his partner, a much older J (Will Smith) travels back in time as well, where he enters the world of a less advanced MIB and less grumpy K. And, of course, he runs into other 1960s staples: racism and Michael Stuhlbarg as a kind-hearted alien named Griffin.
It must be said now, the film’s finest weapon is Stuhlbarg, overcoming his expository role, giving a scene-stealing performance. Screenwriter Etan Coen‘s script is jam packed with exposition, and he and everyone else credited should all consider themselves lucky an actor like Stuhlbarg showed up to give it the right flow. We’re first introduced to his multiple future-telling alien during a sold Andy Warhol scene, and it is by far the film’s brightest moment.
A whole film could be set at that Warhol party. More importantly an MIB spinoff starring the dickish Warhol (Bill Hader) is a downright necessity. It’s a five minute sequence that embodies the core strength and weakness of the film: funny, but small and never spectacular where the action is concerned. The action beat this scene leads to is comprised solely of Boris standing by a window shooting yellow spikes out of his hand. J then jumps out the window, but fails to even go after him. End of scene. No chase or shots fired. Yep, that’s all. This is a movie which had a budget bigger than The Avengers, and yet its largest set piece is a quick, CG-fueled street chase.
That chase is about as close the film gets to having anything resembling a Blockbuster summer moment. Director Barry Sonnenfeld never seems interested in having a kick ass alien shootout or going for grand scale spectacle; he’s clearly more excited having Smith and Brolin bouncing off each other. Considering action isn’t always the filmmaker’s strong suit, that’s not totally a bad thing. Sonnenfeld, when he’s not making Wild Wild West or RV, casts right and lets actors like Will Smith play to their strengths.
For the first act, Smith does what you expect, with the actor mainly dishing out decent zingers, rarely any human-like dialog. Once Smith enter the 60s, the film picks up. The jokes get sharper, the film begins to take on a distinct look, and there’s momentum. The first twenty minutes have none of that.
As expected, when Brolin enters the picture, you wish Agent J would get trapped in the 60s and the film (and series) would remain there. Brolin sidesteps the danger of impersonation, instead actually playing Agent K. What was funny about Tommy Lee Jones‘s K, in the first film, is what’s charming about this young K: he doesn’t know he’s funny. There’s a firm handle of tone this time around with the rapport between the two leads.
If there’s any tonal confusion, it’s over Boris. Rick Baker‘s makeup is unique, but the material Clement is given is far from it. The character provides decent stakes, but they are never consistently felt. Boris kills a bunch of characters we don’t know and he certainly looks evil; all run-of-the-mill villain fluff you forget about after the movie’s over. It’s a bit baffling to make such an unconventional casting choice for such a conventional role, one that requires delivering a Jerry Maguire quote we’ve heard too many times. Also, despite being a great film, why would an alien even watch Jerry Maguire, let alone quote it?
Obviously, this is the film’s most glaring leap in logic…
But the handling of Boris is in line with a large portion of the film: conventional. Man in Black III ends up playing as both a mix of the first and second film, but, by the end, leans more towards the former. Men In Black III ain’t the original, but it’s far more enjoyable than plenty of tentpoles we’ve seen and will continue to see this summer.
In a time clouded by manic and bloated blockbusters, Sonnenfeld’s trilogy ender is a quick and enjoyable experience, the kind that comfortably settles for never really going beyond the expected.
The Upside: Josh Brolin steals the movie away from Smith; Larry Gopnik as an alien; the period gags; playful 3D; the surprisingly sweet ending.
The Downside: The clunky set up; where are the set pieces?; too much exposition.
On The Side: Will Smith came up with the time travel plot device on the set of the second film.