There are a number of issues and questions that pop up when you set out to make a sequel or prequel to a franchise that hasn’t seen a new entry in a while. Do you reintroduce the characters to those who haven’t seen the previous films or do you dive in and pretend everyone in the audience understands the narrative? Do you jump the timeline forward a few years or start from where the last film left off? Do you mature your characters and plot points to reflect the years gone by or do you continue to harp on the same strings that worked so well before? Men in Black 3 wrestles with each of these questions and manages to come out relatively unscathed on the other end.
It has been 14 years since Agent J (Will Smith) joined up with Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) as a member of the Men in Black, a covert agency that serves as both an embassy for alien visitors and protection from extra-terrestrial attacks. The dynamic between the two is much the same as it always has been: J still plays the part of the wise-cracking young upstart while K serves as the crotchety old-timer. Things take a turn, however, when an old enemy of K’s, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), escapes from a prison on the moon and jumps back in time to kill K, an event which in turn leads to the destruction of earth. As the only person who remembers K in the present, J has to jump back to 1969 and re-team with a younger K (Josh Brolin) in order to track down Boris before he can accomplish his mission.
The early scenes of MIB3, in which the audience is reintroduced to the characters, are at best misguided and at worst painful. This reintroduction is a necessary endeavor given that the first Men in Black debuted 15 years ago and everyone likes to pretend the sequel never happened since it is BRUTALLY bad but the execution in this phase is poorly written to say the least. There’s a distinct disconnect between Smith and Jones and whether that was done purposely to show the distance between the characters or not, it doesn’t work. At times during the first 15 minutes, it feels as if Barry Sonnenfeld and the numerous writers who worked on this project couldn’t decide whether to set the film years after the original or as more of a direct sequel taking place shortly after the ’97 film. As a result, the two main characters treat each other as if they’ve only been partners for a few months while the narrative is clear concerning the timeframe. I had a hard time getting past this disjointedness and began bracing myself for a disastrous 103 minutes.
Thankfully, however, MIB3 finds its groove when J jumps back to 1969 and from that point on it’s a fun ride. Throwing J into a drastically different environment brings about some interesting plot points and the film gets plenty of laughs based simply on the difference in technologies and attitudes. The handheld Neuralizer (the “flashy thing”) that J is used to in the present is actually a giant MRI-type machine in the early days of the Men in Black and of course J immediately gets himself into a spot of trouble pertaining to his race in a not-so liberated time period. The plot isn’t always the brightest spot of the film but it does do an admirable job of managing its own time travel mythology, a task which often proves too difficult for many films that revolve around the concept.
But as fun as the storyline and general hijinks of MIB3 are, the real value of the movie can be found in the cast. Sonnenfeld lets Will Smith be Will Smith and that boisterous enthusiasm that has marked his career plays well within this setting. At the outset, Smith almost seems rusty, though perhaps that’s just my subconscious taking over given how long it’s been since we’ve seen him on screen. As the film finds its groove, so too does Smith and before long he’s giving off the old vibes that have made him such a treat to watch over the last 15 years. But with all due respect to Smith, he is thoroughly overshadowed by his surrounding cast. Brolin is, simply, put, incredibly awesome in this role. His impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones is flawless but through a few plot points, he is able to make the character his own in ways that I didn’t expect. He demonstrates great chemistry with Smith that is wonderfully reminiscent of the original film. There are spots within MIB3 in which the novelty of Brolin being Jones working with Smith takes precedence over the plot but I found myself more than willing to accept this dynamic. Beyond Brolin, though, MIB3 is littered with strong supporting work from Will Arnett (brief but great), Bill Hader (whose appearance marks a strong turning point for the film), and most importantly Michael Stuhlbarg who steals every single scene in which he participates. Given his work here and his small role in last year’s Hugo (one of my ten favorite performances of the year), Stuhlbarg is becoming one of my very favorite character actors in Hollywood today.
It isn’t always the smoothest ride and some of the jokes fall flat (though perhaps that’s more a sign of my matured sensibilities) but the blend of action, comedy, and surprisingly good sci-fi makes MIB3 a solid, worthwhile film. Add in a thoroughly unexpected touching moment of genuine heart and it’s even enough to make on forget Men in Black 2 ever happened, a sentiment I think we can all get behind.