By Alan Mattli
15 years ago, Barry Sonnenfeld, a cinematographer (When Harry Met Sally, Miller’s Crossing, Misery) turned director (The Addams Family, Get Shorty), landed one of 1997’s surprise box office hits. Men in Black, a comic-based science-fiction comedy about a surly older man and a talkative young Will Smith working for an organisation fighting alien criminals, was released to wide critical acclaim, grossed over half a billion dollars, and was nominated for three Oscars, winning one. The sequel followed five years later. It, too, made enough money to be called a hit but most critics loathed it, and not without reason: Men in Black II was sillier, cornier, more banal, and less imaginative than its predecessor. And now the world is presented with Men in Black 3. Can Barry Sonnenfeld return to the class of the original? Unfortunately, no, but compared to the first sequel the second one is a breath of fresh air and well worth the price of admission.
Agent J (Will Smith) is not an MIB rookie anymore. Alongside his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), he has been preventing alien takeovers of Earth for more than a decade now. Both agents are professionals and friends, in spite of K still speaking as little as possible and never bothering to put on a smile. J deduces that this has something to do with his partner’s past about which he will not talk. All of a sudden, however, this past becomes important because after breaking out of prison, one-armed super criminal Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame) starts messing with the past, killing K back in 1969. So when J comes into work the next morning, he is surprised to learn that all his colleagues act like his friend died 40 years ago. To fix this confusion in the timeline and to prevent an invasion from Boris’ race, MIB boss O (Emma Thompson) orders J to travel back in time to aid young Agent K (Josh Brolin) in stopping young Boris. In order to do so, they need to find the practically omniscient alien Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) because he carries a device that can protect the Earth from alien invasions.
At first glance, Men in Black 3 looks like a doomed project. It was delayed many times, its budget ballooned up to about 200 million dollars, the plot looks awfully confusing (it is), and writer Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) had to kill off a character – Agent Z – between movies because the actor – Rip Torn – apparently did not want to return for a third installment. This feeling of failure even continues into the first ten to twenty minutes of the film: the jokes are weak, Emma Thompson is painfully unfunny – her eulogy for Z marking the bottom –, and the exposition is ripe with some glaring plot holes. But then, the film pulls off a stunt which is all too rare in mainstream action comedies nowadays: it changes course. After an exceptionally well-paced and choreographed action sequence, things get as lively and entertaining as they should, and Men in Black 3 becomes a genuinely funny movie. There may still be some ill-advised topical humour (“Look, mommy, it’s the President!”), but seeing Will Smith putting his stand-up qualities to good use – his description of K is nothing short of hilarious – makes up for many of the script’s flaws. Moreover, the movie offers several clever historical jokes – just watch J falling through 1929 – and subverts the comedic conventions of its own franchise, most notably in the reference-laden Andy Warhol scene.
With the possible exception of Emma Thompson, the actors do wonders as well. Both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones seem to be enjoying themselves immensely in their old roles, happy to be back, and not just because of the paycheck. Once again, their being polar opposites in terms of characters as well as acting styles makes them a highly amusing team to watch. The same enthusiasm can be found in the performances of Jemaine Clement, who is loveably over the top in his double role – even if his catchphrase, “Let’s agree to disagree”, could need a rewrite –, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays perhaps one of the funniest, certainly one of the most likeable, supporting characters in the Men in Black canon, proves once again just what a great actor he is. Rounding off this formidable cast is Josh Brolin, whose casting as young Agent K was an inspired choice to begin with, as he is gradually evolving into Tommy Lee Jones’ legitimate successor. Brolin’s imagining of a less surly, more idealistic, but still tediously officious K is spot-on and one of the movie’s highlights. It is not least thanks to him that the sad yet agreeably heartwarming closure to the 1969 storyline, which is out of sync with the rest of the film – even if the whole affair is oddly death-centric –, comes across not as overly corny but as a fitting addition to the carefully constructed relationship of J and K.
Men in Black 3 won’t end up being the summer’s best movie, nor will it be its biggest hit. Still, as a second sequel to a franchise that seemed dead for years now, it can be deemed a resounding success. Barry Sonnenfeld succeeded in reviving and, to a degree, rehabilitating his commercially most successful works with a thoroughly entertaining, very sweet, and, last but not least, solidly good film. If you are looking for a cinematic diversion these days, you could certainly do a lot worse.