Fifteen years after the classic Men in Black and ten years after the outright terrible Men in Black 2 comes the next entry in the series, a sequel that no one except Will Smith seemed to particularly want. Regardless, here it is with a shiny new coat of prosthetics and updated CGI. And you know what? Not only did Men in Black 3 turn out to be a good movie, it’s even better the original. Who would’ve thought?
I know I was prepared to hate this movie from the beginning. Last year, stories reverberated through the series of tubes known as the internet that Will Smith had unilaterally dictated that this movie would go into production without a screenplay; that Smith stored a team of paid cronies in a multi-million dollar trailer in the middle of a NYC public street for the purpose of drastically rewriting every scene to the actor’s personal satisfaction; that actors were dropping out of the project left and right because constant delays; and that the budget had ballooned under the irresponsible management of the filmmakers. This picture bore all of the hallmarks of an impending disaster, and it was largely because Will Smith wanted to build another monument to his tremendously swollen ego.
I have to give the filmmakers—and yes, even Will Smith—credit here, however. This movie doesn’t play out like a disaster. In fact, if I had never read of the production problems afflicting Men in Black 3, I would have assumed that the project went off without a hitch. The assembled cast is fantastic, Rick Baker’s makeup effects are spectacular, the CGI is well used, and the story itself is reasonably well structured. For a movie that was supposedly shot without a script, Men in Black 3 is surprisingly better crafted than most of what dribbles out of Hollywood each year. It’s certainly a hell of a lot better than Battleship.
The story kicks off with a moon-based prison break orchestrated by a nasty piece of work known as Boris the Animal (“Its just Boris,” he snarls every time someone brings up his moniker). We quickly discover that Agent K arrested him forty years prior, but not before blowing his arm off. Boris, you see, carries a grudge over that lost arm, and he intends to travel back in time to the 1960’s and kill young Agent K before that can happen, thus regaining his amputated arm in the process. From what little I’ve read about the possibilities of time travel, I don’t think that’s how time travel would actually work, but that’s his master plan; and anyway, Boris doesn’t seem like the brightest blinking light on the UFO to begin with.
Meanwhile, in the present day Special Agents J and K continue to routinely round up Earth’s evilest illegal aliens. The next morning, J wakes up with a crushing headache, discovers that K has suddenly disappeared, and finds the Earth being attacked by a wave of colossal, space faring jellyfish. That means its time for J to travel back to the 1960s and team up with young Agent K to stop Boris.
The only major flaw with this movie is Will Smith, who continues to incessantly shout at the top of his lungs and mug for the camera at every opportunity. This routine kinda worked for his characters back in the ‘90s when he was playing young, cocky hotshots; but now Smith is in his early forties, and at this point in the story, the character of J will have been fighting alien baddies for fifteen years. I think there was a missed opportunity here to portray an older, more grizzled, more cynical J—a guy existing somewhere between the spectrum of Smith’s performance in the first Men in Black and Tommy Lee Jones’ dour K. Instead we get Will Smith playing Will Smith yet again. The man may have aged twenty years since breaking into Hollywood, but he refuses to acknowledge it. At the very least, I guess you can say Smith is consistent if nothing else.
The supporting cast here, however, is amazing and more than compensates for Smith’s laissez-faire approach to acting. Tommy Lee Jones returns, giving a nicely understated performance in something more akin to an extended cameo than an actual supporting role. Michael Stuhlbarg brings a sincerity and poignancy to Griffin, a sweet, almost innocent alien who can see and experience every possible reality in the space-time continuum at once; Stuhlbarg’s soft-voiced neurotic performance generates most of the movie’s laughs. Josh Brolin practically steals the movie with his dead-on Tommy Lee Jones impersonation as young Agent K.
But Gemaine Clement proves to be the real revelation of Men in Black 3. I always viewed him as his goofball character from Flight of the Conchords, but here, buried under pounds of makeup and prosthetics, he evokes all of the refined maliciousness of a young Tim Curry. I look forward to whatever he decides to do next.
Finally, the production values of this movie are fantastic. Director Barry Sonnenfeld achieves an almost perfect unity between practical makeup and special effects. Nearly every creature here (and there are a lot of them, all imaginative) has a physical texture and reality to it. And I imagine that is because all of the creatures here were created by practical effects, and their movements and powers are bridged with carefully applied CGI. And get this: There wasn’t a single gratuitous CGI explosion in the entire movie. Among other things, this movie is an exercise in using big budget special effects properly.
Men in Black 3 is the kind of movies that summers were made for. Its fun, its action packed, and its occasionally imaginative. It doesn’t achieve the heights of movies like Inception or The Dark Knight, but it gets the job done. And it’s the best movie either Will Smith or Barry Sonnenfeld have been a part of since 1997’s Men in Black.