It is not often that one has the privilege of reviewing a good second sequel to an almost 15-year-old franchise. At this point in the film industry, it is commonplace to become jaded with the onslaught of sequels, chalking the lack of new intellectual properties up to the cursed dearth of originality in Hollywood. And indeed, Men In Black 3 doesn’t make any real effort to distinguish itself from its most successful predecessor – but in this case, with the first Men in Black having achieved such monstrous success and its sequel being such an awful follow-up, this close-hewed threequel is a much more welcome addition to the franchise.
When I suggest that Men in Black 3 calls heavily on the original film, I mean that it does so in its tone and nature, not in plot points or story beats. No, MIB 3 steers well-clear of the simple rehash trick that MIB II attempted, following a twisting narrative arc which echoes the charming novelty of the first film by confusing, tricking, and ultimately pleasing its audience with its central mystery. In the end, I believe the fact that Men in Black 3 began shooting without a script might have been its greatest asset, because while the film clearly has a beginning, middle, and end, it feels unstructured in a very positive, well-paced, organic sort of way.
I admit I have never actually sat down and read Lowell Cunnhingham’s Men in Black comics from which the first film was adapted – I am told they are sport a much darker tone and incorporate not only extraterrestrials, but supernatural beings, as well, and killing is often the favored alternative to a simple neuralyzing. Having grown up with the more lighthearted, charming take Barry Sonnenfeld has had on the property, I have to say I really couldn’t have expected MIB 3 to be any different than it is. It is a silly film that appropriately sports snappy dialogue, and lots of fun comedic interplay between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin.
If there is one thing that the critics’ circle seems to agree on, it’s that Josh Brolin’s performance is solid gold – as a younger, warmer version of Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K, he adds significant dimensionality to the latter’s characterization. In a risky move, Sonnenfeld makes a point of illustrating K’s 2-dimensionality at the film’s opening, leaving the audience thinking that, in fact, K is actually quite a boring protagonist. However, this initial downplaying works well as a set-up for the surprisingly deep character study filling the rest of the film’s runtime. Once the mystery about K’s past is revealed and Will Smith’s Agent J is returned to the present, we have a restored and renewed appreciation for the deadly serious Agent K.
Will Smith benefits from his clear adoration for the MIB universe; he exudes happiness at returning to one of his most famous starring roles, quipping and mugging like the first Men In Black came out yesterday. As aforementioned, Tommy Lee Jones’s character feels hollow until the end of the film, but this is not at all the fault of the actor – taking up minimal screen time and handing most of the character development to his younger counterpart were necessary sacrifices for the sake of the plot. A new side character named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) is also introduced in MIB 3 whose role I won’t spoil, but I will mention that I found Stuhlbarg’s neurotic performance to be strong and interesting and his character’s design to be quite fascinating.
The storyline of Men In Black 3 focuses on the mystery of K’s past, using the mechanic of time travel for the first time in the franchise. I certainly felt as I watched the film that this time travel element paralleled the “Orion’s Belt” puzzle in the first film, while K’s enigmatic past seemed to mirror the novelty of our introduction to the world of the Men In Black in the opening scenes of the first film. In this way, the movie made a significant and well-conceived departure from the formulaic approach of the first sequel in favor of becoming a more spiritual successor to the tone of the original film.
On that note, MIB 3 includes several subtle references to elements from the first movies, particularly Frank the Pug, which add to its familiar atmosphere. It is also certainly worth mentioning that seven-time Oscar-winner Rick Baker is back for a third go-round designing the aliens for the film, and every creature that is introduced feels completely germane to the MIB universe. The effects are more than sound, as well, which help establish that ever-evasive believability factor.
Most people did not have high hopes for this threequel. I know I didn’t even include it on my list of 2012 films to see because of the horror show that was Men in Black II. Nevertheless, I found Men in Black 3 to be a mostly funny, light, and even heartfelt revisit with Agents J and K, who at this point feel like old friends. I didn’t know how much I wanted to see a fourth entry before, but having been exposed to the deeper characterizations of both J and K in this film, I think the opportunity for more adventures with this oddball couple wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to the franchise… provided they remember what failed miserably in II, and stick to what worked in I and III.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on Retro Quips – I was sort of hoping for a 60s riff on the “It just be raining black people in New York” line everyone loves so much from the first film, but alas.
A Note on Hephaestus – Unfortunately, Rip Torn does not make an appearance in this film as Agent Zed. However, his replacement, Agent O (played by Emma Thompson), plays well with the rest of the cast and helps to add some dimensionality to the plot.
A Note on Graffiti Aliens – I know I saw a graffiti alien in the first trailer for Men In Black 3, but he seems to be absent from the film. I know the design got a lot of flack around the interwebs for being too silly, so I wonder if he was removed at the last minute?
A Note on 3D – I don’t normally recommend 3D, but if you decide to go that route here, I have to admit the added effect of putting on glasses with Agents J and K is a pretty swanky feeling. I should also point out that one effect in particular made excellent use of the extra visual plane (see Boris’s hand in the opening scene), but in general you could tell the film was post-converted; many, many scenes that could have 3D didn’t make any use of the format whatsoever.