The phrase “stick a fork in it” comes to mind with the arrival of a third Men in Black movie. Maybe it’s because it is the first sequel in a decade. Or maybe it’s because the franchise has shown its age in the wake of all the superhero movies we’ve become accustomed to each summer. To be honest, I’ve all but forgotten the previous sequel, feeling it sucked all the life out of the original – sucked worse than an Alien facehugger suck. So with the release of Men in Black 3 (MIB 3, for short), it was a relief that the elements that made the original so fun are present this time around.
But the question remains is if this was a necessary sequel. The obvious answer is no – until you consider that the studio behind it, Sony Pictures, is pretty low in the franchise department. Movie franchises can be a cash cow for a studio on an international level. And with otherworldly characters being as popular as sparkly vampires these days, might as well as dig an old property out of mothballs for one last hurrah.
It’s been four years since Will Smith has been in feature film (his last was Seven Pounds). Considering his star power, four years away from having your name emblazoned on the marquee feels more than a decade. He’s one of the few remaining “movie stars” left in Hollywood – most are just pretty faces or flavor of the months that get cast in a bunch of projects in a five-year span and then go away. Seven Pounds was definitely a project done out of the love of the material, and it was a change of pace for an actor who had a six year consecutive run of eight $100 million dollars plus blockbusters. Audiences couldn’t connect to the story and Smith’s star status was tarnished somewhat. However, had it not been for Smith’s interest that project may have never been developed.
It may seem like I’m beating around the bush of my MIB 3 review (and what if I am?), but I’m just illustrating that Smith is in that transitional period as a box office idol. Now he’s back in the saddle of an old billion-dollar franchise as a means to see if his star power is aplenty and to bring his fans along for the ride.
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprise their roles as agents J and K, and they pick up right where they left off – playing a buddy pair that complement each other so well. Only this time Smith isn’t the young hotshot that he once was, but he’s still got that charisma that made him so identifiable in the role fourteen years ago. Jones is still the grouchy, cantankerous deadpan-delivering coot. Granted, their shtick is well worn by now. Though all that changes soon enough when Agent J ventures to the past and comes into contact with a 29-year-old K (as played by 44-year-old Josh Brolin).
The proceedings are a little slow to get out of the starting gate, as the duo is in wink-and-smile-remember-us mode. K and J are still protecting the earth from the scum of the universe only this time under the direction of Emma Thompson’s Agent O (Rip Torn’s Zed character has passed on). When Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement) escapes the Lunar Max prison facility on the Moon he vows revenge on K, who apprehended him 40 years ago and took his left arm in the process. Soon thereafter, J arrives at MIB headquarters only to discover that his partner has been dead for the last 40 years. A little more exploratory information reveals that the space-time continuum has been disrupted due to Boris acquiring a time-jump device (can you say “heavy”?). Now J must travel back to 1969 and prevent Boris from killing K.
It is only when we get to 1969 that the story starts to get interesting. The film starts out promising with the introduction of Boris. Played strongly by eccentric comic Clement, his character would give Peter Parker a run for his money in the Spider-Man department. The supporting cast only gets better with the additions of SNL‘s Bill Hader as Andy Warhol and Michael Stuhlbarg as a prescient alien named Griffin, who has the ability to process thousands of different future scenarios while also interacting in the current setting.
But it is Josh Brolin as young Agent K that is likely to be the most memorable. This former “goonie” has been on a roll ever since 2007’s No Country for Old Men. His dead-on young Tommy Lee Jones interpretation is the comedy’s biggest saving grace as it raises the bar from the old familiar to something to remember. Story goes that Brolin was so attuned with Jones’ character’s deadpan shtick that director Barry Sonnenfeld teared up a little on set, muttering to himself, “this could work.”
The comedy still has the requisite staples of a summer blockbuster with chases and a great final set piece at Cape Kennedy with Apollo 11 about to launch, but the film’s success resides in the agents J and K’s relationship. It always has, and always will. Take out the aliens and the need to save Planet Earth and you are left with two guys of different generations who take care of business in dissimilar ways. It’s all about attitude and how they come across.
Removing Jones for much of the film’s running time allows Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) to tinker with the buddy-cop aspect by having J and K’s relationship evolve, albeit in 1969 and under different circumstances. It is the change that allows for some silly exchanges between Smith and Brolin – sadly, though, most of the best bits are found in the trailers.
Men in Black 3 is a summer movie that on one hand you wonder why this needed to be made (easy answer: lucrative property) and the other has you debating its relevance with audiences. Sony Pictures could have easily hit the reset button on this franchise, which seems to be the typical approach when there have been too many years between sequels. Ten years in between MIB 2 and MIB 3 is a long time after all. However, this may be the most unassuming sequel of the summer in that it isn’t trying push the envelope. It’s content with being a respite; a fun, if over-budget comedy that as a few sentimental touches. It’s not perfect by any means, but the addition of Josh Brolin helps alleviate what could have been a complete train wreck.
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer: Etan Cohen, based on “The Men in Black” by Lowell Cunningham
Notable Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bill Hader, Alice Eve