I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Men in Black 3. That feeling only deepened in the first few minutes, as I watched an opening scene which raised more questions than it answered. Worse yet, it seemed as though all of my problems from the previous movie would remain. Tommy Lee Jones was still back. Will Smith was still cracking bad jokes. And though I didn’t know when I’d see him, I just knew Frank the Pug would make another guest appearance at some point. I could feel the premonition of coming “comic relief” pain taunting me with maddening certainty. But there was nothing for it. I had bought my ticket, and I wasn’t about to walk out of the movie. So I settled back to await the inevitable inferiority of a second sequel.
Imagine my surprise when, about twenty minutes into the movie, I found myself enjoying it. From that point on, the movie only improved. They just don’t make inevitability like they used to, I guess. Serves me right for judging a book by its cover.
There will be massive spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you’re not prepared to hear all. But for those people who want to see and judge for themselves, I’ll leave you with this thought: Men in Black 3 is the pleasant surprise of the summer movie season so far. What’s more, though I’m sure mine will be the minority opinion, it’s actually my favorite of the franchise. Where the first movie was a fun action romp that missed a few opportunities to be something deeper, this one takes advantage of its opportunities to humanize its characters, creating a few moments of genuine feeling amidst the very successful action and comedy portions. And it’s definitely an improvement over the loathsome quagmire that was the second movie. Though I doubt it will make enough money to justify a fourth entry, Men in Black 3 will at the very least send out the franchise on a high note.
The first thing that will really strike the viewer, I think, is how much Tommy Lee Jones has aged since the previous movies. It’s startling. Fifteen years will show on anyone’s face, but for Jones it looks more like twenty-five years have passed. Yet I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t have been right if he had looked any younger. Aging in its multiple aspects is a major concern for the characters of this film. Some will mature. Some will have to deal with the past, either moving on from it or fighting it to their last breath. And some, Jones’s Agent K foremost among them, will have to stare time in the face filled with regrets about things left undone and unsaid.
The variations on this theme are all set up in the first few scenes, starting with what (in hindsight) is a more effective opening sequence than I initially gave it credit for. The film’s villain, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), is introduced breaking out of a secure prison for aliens located on the moon. (You’ll simply have to ignore how unlikely that would be, or what it says about how vast MiB’s operations really are, if you want to enjoy the film.) Boris has been imprisoned there for over forty years, harboring a grudge against the man who incarcerated him and shot off his arm in the process. You’ll be unsurprised to find out that this is Agent K, MiB’s resident superstar. For Boris, the past few decades are ones he’d like to wipe out of existence – starting with K.
Agent J (still Will Smith) has some issues of his own to deal with. Despite having worked with his partner on and off for fifteen years, K still treats J like a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, and J is getting sick of it. Moreover, K is as taciturn as ever, offering a completely content-free eulogy for Zed and being barely more talkative with his partner. The worst is when Boris escapes, and K cuts J completely out of the loop on the case. None of that sits well with J, who angrily hangs up on his partner when he calls later that night. This is a very good scene, as we both sympathize with J’s frustration and yet still feel that K has a good reason for holding back. No small part of this is due to the acting of Tommy Lee Jones, who has carried the franchise to this point.
Then K vanishes before our eyes, having been killed in the past by Boris…and it’s Smith’s turn.
Everything starts going wrong at once after K’s death. A Boglodite fleet (Boris’s people) suddenly appear in orbit, descend to the surface of Earth, and begin laying waste to humanity. Apparently there was a high-tech shield protecting Earth from invasion called the ArcNet, which K had placed on the rocket taking the Apollo 11 mission into space on July 16, 1969 – the day he wounded and captured Boris. With K’s death, Boris never got his arm shot off, ArcNet was never sent into space, and Earth lost its most valuable protection against alien ships. (Ignore the problems this would cause for the events of the first movie. I guess ArcNet only protects us against Boglodites.) It falls to J, who alone among all the MiB agents remembers that K was alive only the day before, to travel back in time in a desperate attempt to stop Boris and save his partner. In the process, he’ll get answers to all his questions…though he may not like everything he finds out.
I implied earlier that Will Smith carries this movie on his back. That’s true. But what that means in practice is that for the most part, his typical flashy performance vanishes once he doesn’t have Jones to interact with. Instead, that role falls to Josh Brolin as the 1960’s version of Agent K. Make no mistake – Brolin is what people are going to remember about this movie. He absolutely nails the mannerisms that Tommy Lee Jones has made a part of Agent K, and looks enough like Jones that it’s very easy to buy him as a younger version of the same character we’ve come to know and love. But at the same time, Brolin plays K differently. He’s more chatty and cheerful, saving the world and having the time of his life doing it. At several points, J asks K what happened to make him lose his joie de vivre. Suffice it to say that we find out, and what we learn could potentially make us reinterpret everything K has done since we saw his meeting with James Edwards III in a New York City police station fifteen years ago.
As fun as meeting Brolin’s K is, the version of the Sixties around him is just as fun. A brief shot of the MiB headquarters gives us a reference point to how much science fiction has changed over the past forty years. Your mileage may vary on whether you find the reference funny or not; I smiled, but a bit wanly. Other jokes, like the solid-state Neuralyzer and the billboard advertising a talking carnival dog (one of two references to an otherwise unseen Frank), are hilarious. There’s plenty of the weird tech we’ve come to expect from the franchise, including some collapsible cycles and a pair of the most unwieldy jetpacks in the history of cinema. And Men in Black 3 makes us forget Michael Jackson’s exasperating cameo in MIIB by giving us Bill Hader in a brief appearance as Andy Warhol, who – far from being an alien – is an undercover MiB agent. I was happy to have it “confirmed” that Warhol’s later bizarre pop-art was due to a lack of imagination!
The people coming to Men in Black 3 for action will not be disappointed. The shots of the Boglodites destroying New York City at the beginning of the movie are surprisingly filled with detail, and just as surprisingly fresh-feeling. New York has never been obliterated on film quite like this, which I think helps raise the stakes as J dives off the Chrysler Building and back in time. (Leave it to a movie like this to make jumping back in time contingent on jumping off a building!) There are also a couple of well-executed high-speed chases for the adrenalin junkies. And of course, there’s the culminating fight between J, K, Boris, and Boris (yes, two Borises) in and around the Apollo 11 launch area, which is as grand a setpiece as we’re likely to see this summer. But the movie also finds a sense of spectacle in the quieter moments, as when J and K are treated by an alien named Griffin to a glimpse of the future World Series triumph of the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
Griffin’s presence is actually essential to the movie’s working as well as it does. Most time travel movies have to avoid the inevitable question: Why should we care? Someone is trying to mess with the past, but we already know they can’t succeed. It’s simple logic. If they successfully change the past, then the present would be different, so they wouldn’t have gone back to change the past, so the present would be the way it was before…and the loop continues from there. Since the loop is paradoxical, and by definition impossible, there’s no way the past can be changed. Enter Griffin, whose great gift is that he can see into every possible future, even the unlikely ones – up until the moment one comes to pass, at which point the others cease to exist.
This is not simply there to set up some broad comedy (though it does, and what results is mostly funny). It gives the portion of the audience that loves to ponder time-travel scenarios, myself among them, a dark possibility to chew on. What if a person could reactivate whole sets of possible timestreams, and maybe even make our timestream impossible in the process, by changing something in the past? Such a scenario doesn’t seem to fall prey to the same simple loop that most time-travel movies have to deal with. So we enter the endgame with the tantalizing possibility that Boris might actually win, or at the very least, that he might change things just enough so that J returns to a radically different future.
Yet at the same time, the movie does imply several things: that J was there the “first time” in 1969, before he ever made the decision in 2012 to leap back into the past; that K’s life was saved by an agent he would not recruit for another three decades; and that the pair of agents are between them responsible for the course J’s childhood took, and so partly responsible for the man he grew up to be. The movie never drags these ideas into the light or examines them openly. It simply leaves them there, buried in the middle of the film. You can choose not to look for them, and simply enjoy this as a fast-paced romp through time that turns unexpectedly poignant at the end. Or you can look for them. Even once you find them, though, you’ll have a choice about what to believe (or will you?): whether all of what plays out before your eyes was set down immutably in this fictional timestream, or whether the characters brought their fates about through their choices.
That sort of elegant treatment of metaphysical possibility is far more than I expected from a film like this. And it was a wonderful treat to find. If you’ve been avoiding Men in Black 3 because you didn’t want your intelligence insulted, I assure you it won’t be. Well, not too much, anyway. For anyone who loves time-travel stories, for anyone who loves fun action, and for anyone who was a fan of the first film, this one comes well-recommended.