Men In Black 3 (2D)2012
by Scott Mendelson
I don't know how much Men In Black 3 actually cost. I don't know the details of the behind-the-scenes turmoil that shut the film down for a period so the filmmakers could frantically rewrite the screenplay. I don't know what got removed and what got added or changed along the way. But the highest compliment that I can pay this third installment in the series is that none of the backstage drama shows. The story makes sense, there are few real plot holes, and the actors exude confidence and charm in a screenplay that balances trailer-friendly set pieces and gags with genuine storytelling and character growth. The world may not have needed another Men In Black picture, but director Barry Sonnenfeld and writers Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and Michael Soccio have crafted a shockingly good one, arguably the best in the series. This is accomplished and polished popcorn entertainment that is refreshingly light on its feet. For what it's worth, I thought the first Men In Black was somewhat overrated while Men In Black 2 was *slightly* underrated. Men In Black 3 is the first in the series that I would call almost-great.
A token amount of plot: After alien assassin 'Boris the Animal' (Jemaine Clement) breaks out of jail and vows revenge against the agent who put him away forty years ago, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) takes it personally, to the worry of his longtime partner Agent J (Will Smith). Attempts to find out what happened forty years ago turn up little, and Agent K seems just about ready to divulge an apparent secret when something somewhere changes the time stream and eradicates K from existence. Now Agent K is dead, with history having been rewritten and alien forces about to invade Earth due to circumstances that *didn't* happen forty years ago. It's up to J to travel back to 1969 and attempt to 'put right what once went wrong'. But he'll need the help of a much younger Agent K (Josh Brolin) to do it.
Well underneath the surface, the picture is a mediation on just what these extraterrestrial agents sacrifice when they basically delete themselves from existence and put on those black suits. It's something that I feel the films never really touched on, although the late-1990s WB cartoon series did on occasion. The idea of completely cutting yourself off from friends, family, and the general human existence is a potent one, and the cost arguably weighs heavy on these agents as they get older. Although it's somewhat played for laughs, the opening funeral of an older agent elicits a certain tragedy as his coworkers don't seem to have anything to say about him. This passing, as well as the return of old ghosts, puts Agent K in an ever more dour mood than ever, and it's frankly jolting to see Tommy Lee Jones almost on the verge of tears in the opening act. The film is too light to really commit to it hardcore, but there are touches of the whole 'what exactly are we giving up our lives for?' subtext that permeates the best espionage pictures (think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Breach, or even Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible). Highlighting this arbitrariness is the picture's most engaging character, Griffin (Michael Stuhlberg). His curse is the ability to see every possible time line without any ability to control the outcome, and Stuhlberg almost single-handily gives the film's somewhat jokey second act a potency and pathos that elevates the proceedings.
Of course, being a Barry Sonnenfeld comedy, there are indeed a number of solid laughs. To the film's credit, very few of them belong to Josh Brolin. Brolin doesn't portray a young Agent K for laughs or for easy mimicry, but rather as a contrast to the somber and often silent elder agent. He's still straight-laced and all-business, but he's not the bitter shell of a man we know from the prior films (his best joke is one that explicitly deals with how old Brolin is in real life). No the real laughs belong to, among other people, Bill Hader who plays Andy Warhol in an extended cameo that's frankly much funnier than the trailers let on. As in the previous films, the special effects are relatively story-driven, used at either the behest of the narrative or for the sake of comedy. After The Avengers and Battleship, it's borderline subversive to have a mammoth and destructive present day alien invasion occurring entirely in the background.
There are a few action beats, including one brief chase that seems to exist only for marketing purposes, but the film plays as a pure time-travel detective story for most of its running time (for what it's worth, it's a casually violent picture that earns its PG-13). If the film has a real flaw, it is that it overlooks the rather barbaric code of conduct that the Men In Black operate under (basically our agents can torture and arbitrarily execute any alien whenever they want, as long as no humans are injured). I'm going to assume that Sonnenfeld and company weren't intentionally delivering an anti-due process moral but merely brought a 'hard-boiled private eye' sensibility to this story that involves government agents.
Will Smith may be a bit too old for his 'I make this look good!' shtick, but the film plays his age to its favor, with Smith portraying a man who holds onto his youthful attitude because he hasn't developed anything to replace it (he spends his nights playing video games by himself in a bare-bones apartment). Tommy Lee Jones doesn't have a huge amount of screen time, but he makes every second count with a weariness that brings to mind his climactic speech from No Country For Old Men. There are real pathos to the opening and closing reels, and Stuhlberg's fascinating time-watcher holds the fort during the comparatively slight middle act. There is also real tension and suspense in the token action climax, as the sense of foreboding allows us to truly fear for the survival of our heroic leads. And without going into details, the film's finale goes for emotion over FX razzle-dazzle, in a fashion that will make you look at the entire franchise in a new light. It's a jolt right at the end that elevates the film to a slightly higher plane even while completely playing fair with the audience and the franchise's internal logic.
Men In Black 3 isn't a piece of high art, but it is a surprisingly strong and refreshingly small-scale summer movie that puts character relationships over spectacle. It's funny, moving, and exciting without becoming overwhelming. It ranks among Barry Sonnenfeld's best films, not quite up there with Get Shorty or Addams Family Values but at least as solid as the underrated Big Trouble. I don't know whether the massive budget overruns and pricey talent deals make Men In Black 3 a good investment. But it's a surprise, a relief, and a pleasure to report that Men In Black 3 is a good movie.