Review: Not Saying a Lot, But 'Men in Black 3' is Best of the Series
by Jeremy Kirk
May 25, 2012
The sunglasses. The suits. The little flashy thing that erases your memory. Will Smith saying "damn." The Men in Black films appear as if they could be written in a weekend. It's a wonder we're only on Men in Black III, 15 years after Agents J and K met. As formulaic as these films are, one every other year would grow tiresome quickly. As it is, the latest outing is a nice check-in with old characters and cool new ones. Though Men in Black III takes time moving and logic is nowhere around, it's an enjoyable ride with enough heart to make it the best of the trilogy. Just don't expect to remember it tomorrow. Blame the flashy thing.
This time around, Agent J, played once again by the Fresh Prince who likes to welcome alien beings to "Earf," must travel back to 1969 in order to save both his partner's life and the world as we know it. An alien warrior, played with gnashing teeth and humorous expression by Jemaine Clement, has broken out of his prison cell on the Moon where Agent K, played again by Tommy Lee Jones, has sent him and traveled back in time to take revenge on the Agent's younger self. He does so, and everyone at MiB Headquarters believes K to have been dead for 40+ years. Everyone, that is, except for J. Cue the time travel music, which sounds a bit like the theme songs for the other two movies, and, before you can say "fish out of water", J makes his way back to just before the alien succeeds in his murderous plot, runs into a young Agent K played with fine mimicry by Josh Brolin, and even learns a thing or two about himself in the process.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld, the other returning element to the Men in Black franchise, and the team of writers behind the film's script play fast and loose with the time travel side of things. We weren't expecting Primer here, but the notions of paradoxes and butterfly effects are only mentioned, brushed on as if the whole film read like an Idiot's Guide to Travelling Back in Time. There's very little in the way of strong, structural continuity here, but that goes with the territory. This is a series of films that has a different "love of his life" for the aged Agent K, this time showing a deep-rooted affection for a fellow agent, O, played by Emma Thompson (and a young 1969 version by the lovely Alice Eve).
Men in Black III is hurt by Thompson's presence here only in that we haven't had two films prior for the relationship her character has with K to build. She's ostensibly filling in for Zed, since Rip Torn doesn't return, and his character's departure from the series is about as thinly handled as the time travelling.
But you don't expect Shane Carruth-level structuring with something a Men in Black film. That's not what it's there for. It's primary goal is to have Smith acting all Will Smith-like, cool but naive and as full of himself as he's ever been. The comedy in Men in Black III, absolutely of the been-there-done-that variety, still works because of the people filling these roles, Smith being chief among them. Every performance he gives, whether it's more peculiar like Seven Pounds or typical as can be with his Summer fare, is a reminder of why he became an A-list star in the first place. He doesn't mind making his character look like a fool, but when the film finds its emotional center, though way late in the game, he tones it down to the right level, keeping your emotions in check and not allowing you to be distracted from what you're supposed to feel.
Jones doesn't have much time on screen, but his presence is felt, as well. It's really Brolin, aping Jones' facial ticks, no-nonsense delivery, and drawl that may as well be spelled with six "a"s, who spring-boards the film to life with a well-placed "slick." The early moments are standard set-up with minimal energy to be found, even with Smith punching it dead-on. Brolin's appearance catapults the back 2/3 of Men in Black III, and even the obvious jokes dealing with J in 1969 seem to have a modicum of spark to them. The last half of the film has no intentions of letting up from either laughs or action sequences. The laughs aren't helped by originality nor are those action sequences aided in any way by believable, visual effects, but it's the kitschy nature of it all that makes the '60s setting work to Men in Black III's advantage.
Without realizing it, you become invested, first in the characters and then in the story. Michael Stuhlbarg as the last of an alien race who can see every outcome of every event in history is delightful, looking like Joaquin Phoenix after a few Chemotherapy treatments but with all the comedic silliness of Robin Williams' stand-up. Yes, that's an odd combination, and no, the thought of Robin Williams' comedy doesn't instill confidence in general, but Stuhlberg plants himself in the role and smirks his way through it with remarkable results.
While Men in Black III is the best of the series, it's still not a franchise that warrants mass audiences frothing at the mouth for the next installment. There's nothing solid to latch onto, and though this latest offering delves more into J as a person than any of the previous films - Until now, all we knew about the character was that he was as flashy as that memory eraser thing and "made this look good - it's still just as thin and forgettable as its predecessors. You might laugh more with this third time out, but it still remains that, come the next day, you have a hard time even remembering the jokes. We'll be saying the same for Men in Black IV in about a decade.
Jeremy's Rating: 6.5 out of 10