Men in Black is a dying breed of film. Rarely these days do fun, original concepts, like that of a mysterious organization monitoring and policing extraterrestrial life on Earth, come along. To recap, the first Men in Black back in 1997 introduced us to the galaxy defenders, followed by a disappointing sequel in 2002. Over the next seven years, the same creative team periodically expressed great interest in returning for a third outing. Nothing came of it.
Finally, a third Men in Black began picking up steam about three years ago when a brief teaser was released and a script was commissioned from Tropic Thunder writer Etan Cohen, later changing hands to writers David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson. When filming finally kicked off at the end of 2010, people became concerned over the production’s reported plan to delay the remainder of filming until the beginning of 2011. Tabloid rumors erupted that the studio, director Barry Sonnenfeld, and star Will Smith were clashing over the script, and that Smith’s ego was causing problems for the production. Accumulating a whopping $215 million budget, the production finally resumed in April 2011 to many a fan’s relief. Still, several news outlets predicted doom when further reports came in of more clashes between Sonnenfeld and the studio, attached stars like Alec Baldwin dropping out, and Smith commissioning rewrites of the script from former Fresh Prince writer Mike Soccio. Smith even made headlines over the size and parking of his trailer during filming. It seemed the ever-elusive third installment was damned from the outset.
After withering the worst, the black suits are finally coming, back to defend Earth from the worst scum of the universe in Men in Black III. Reuniting most of the cast and crew of the old films and introducing new faces the the mythos, the question stands – how does this long-awaited third installment fare?
Men in Black III sees Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) growing more distant in their partnership, parting after a bitter argument following another alien bust. Meanwhile, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a lion-like villain with bug-like tendencies, escapes the lunar prison K locked him away in back in 1969 and swears revenge on the aging agent. Despite K’s best efforts, Boris travels back to 1969 and kills K’s younger self (Josh Brolin). Back in 2012, J is the only agent aware of his partner’s disappearance, learns he too must travel back in time to stop Boris from killing K. J soon discovers, however, that he’ll need the 1969 version of his old partner to stop Boris for good.
Among MIB III’s new characters are Griffin, a happy little fifth-dimensional being who’s able to predict several possible outcomes to everything that happens, and the aforementioned Boris the Animal, a memorable villain that shoots bug-like spikes from his hands, both of which are cool additions to the series’ legacy. For his part in the 1969 segments, Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as a young Agent K, hitting all the right notes and even making for a better Tommy Lee Jones than Tommy Lee Jones himself. More on that later.
For better or for worse, MIB III focuses more on its characters this time around than a lot of crazy creatures/gadgetry/visuals designed by Rick Baker. The time travel dynamic doesn’t allow for too much new stuff other than older versions of what we’ve already seen, which, while thematically sound, feels a bit underwhelming considering this series’ age-long absence. I did not see the film in 3D, but I gathered that a lot of the visual flair might’ve been significantly improved in the added format.
Given this movie’s sheer number of publicized rewrites and other rumored script problems, I spent much of MIB III looking for something wrong with the writing, in dialogue, presentation, etc. I’m pleased to say that there’s nothing particularly bad or noticeable at all from the production’s issues, featuring a vastly improved script compared to the second film and with a good helping of clever dialogue and good comedy, if nothing overly quotable or memorable.
And that pretty much sums up the movie – it’s serviceable, an improvement from the last, but nothing particularly stand-out. And it’s not perfect by any means – some fans may chide the film for its tendency to cling to a few stale tropes from the first film, like J distracting the villain to keep him from impeding the launch of a ship vital to Earth’s safety.
Tommy Lee Jones looks bored for his part, and you can tell the movie was written around his obvious reluctance to play a bigger part; Brolin as young K just outdoes Jones in every way this time around. Even Will Smith seems to be falling too far into the routine, and while all this doesn’t necessarily work against the film (we get hints that J and K are growing tired of the life and such), it would’ve been nice if the pair had really brought back their A-game for the series’ grand return.
Really, the whole experience is far too “business as usual”, when it should really be a celebration of the return of these characters and this universe to the big screen. Much of the movie sees J reiterating his now fourteen years of working for the organization, and yet we never get a sense that he’s changed much in all that time. Did nothing particularly important happen in the ten years since Men in Black II? Where is the sense of joy at seeing these guys onscreen together in all that time? Maybe this script could’ve passed five years ago, but again, for a reunion of this caliber, it just doesn’t pack as much punch.
And on a side note, what’s with the awful credits music? Is Big Willie Style retired from rapping for good? His two memorable themes from the previous films regularly top ‘Best Movie Theme Ever’ lists. Pitbull’s “Back in Time” is a hollow placeholder to Smith’s rapping, and will no doubt be dated before summer’s end.
If you’re a fan, don’t let all that stop you. Men in Black III is a solid return-to-form for a series with the kind of fun that’s sorely lacking in movies today. Your enjoyment will depend entirely on how big a fan of these films you are and how willing you are to look past its flaws. Personally, as someone with a strong nostalgic attachment to the franchise, I went in with reasonable expectations and wasn’t disappointed. And while the film doesn’t quite recapture that same spark of originality Ed Solomon’s script for the original film did, it does fare far better than the second installment, which is something, at least. Now, let’s hope Sony has the wisdom to end the series here, dignity intact, and devote their attentions to finding the next concept of MIB-level genius.