I may never experience a more stunning reversal in my life than I did during my screening of MEN IN BLACK 3. You know sometimes how you can start out lukewarm on a film and then grow to love it? That’s the kind of trajectory we’re talking here. Except you have to pull it back a few notches. I started out hating the film and then grew to kind of like it. I even got invested in the story a little during the last 20 minutes. This is easily more than I can say for any other Barry Sonnenfeld film of the past 10 years.
After a somewhat interesting (if not a little groan-worthy) opening introducing Jermaine Clement as the film’s antagonist, Boris The Animal, the movie screeches to an absolute nails-on-the-chalkboard halt. As MIB 3 begins, Will Smith’s Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones Agent K are battling a hiccup in their working chemistry. J is tired of K being so emotionally shut down and their dysfunctional relationship has resulted in 14 years worth of aggregated miscommunication. Even though the awful Men In Black 2 has all but been erased from my memory, I know enough about these characters for this to make perfect sense – and so does the general audience. So I don’t know why the film sees fit to hammer the point home in the fashion that it does. We know these characters and can deal with a little bit of shorthand, but the film won’t allow it. And as a result, all of the trademark chemistry between these two is pretty much gone.
Sonnenfeld’s film continues to slip away from him until it reaches its absolute nadir when Emma Thompson’s Agent O delivers an alien language eulogy for a beloved character from the first two films. Almost as painful is an early set piece in a Chinese restaurant. Its unchecked desire to recreate the exact jokes that worked for the 1997 original is downright appalling. There’s no new twist to any of it. The whole culture has shifted since that film but so far there’s nothing in MIB 3 to indicate that its aware anytime has passed at all. These moments marked the first time I have ever contemplated walking out of a press screening (and I sat through Gone).
But then something funny happens. The moment Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K disappears the film takes on a slight bit of urgency. When Will Smith heads back to 1969 and finally meets up with the young Agent K (played by the always great Josh Brolin) the film kicks into gear. And while it may not be a high gear, at least it’s moving forward. Ironically, the chemistry that Jones and Smith are unable to achieve early in the film comes quite easily when Brolin is brought in to pinch-hit. And while his performance may start out as an impersonation of Jones’ work – it quickly and quietly grows into something else.
While Smith is more than capable, Brolin actually becomes the film’s heart and soul. The younger K isn’t light years different than the older K, but he is different. Younger physically and, much more importantly, younger in spirit. He’s able to crack a smile and to offer up the occasional joke. Not that said jokes are funny, but it’s actually interesting to see this character in a different place in his life. A place where he’s enjoying himself more and where he allows himself to love (Alice Eve playing a younger Agent O). By the end of the film, his performance has morphed into something that’s actually touching. You like this guy and you’re a little bit upset that the rest of his life will not treat him quite as kindly as he deserves.
Aside from Brolin, another asset in the film’s corner is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Griffin – a neurotic inextricably plugged into the possibilities and variables of the space-time continuum. He’s somewhat annoying but his character also brings the biggest ideas to the table. And if there’s anything sci-fi should be predicated on, it’s ideas. Jermaine Clement also works as Boris The Animal, selling menace surprisingly well. It also doesn’t hurt that the film’s climax genuinely involves storytelling – something I was utterly shocked by in light of how poorly everything started.
Proving that much can be forgiven if something gets progressively better as it goes along, MIB 3 actually squeaks by with a mild recommendation. If you liked the original film, you’ll find something to latch on to here. Eventually.