Review: Men in Black III (2012)

Coming ten years after the disappointing sequel to the original, Men in Black III might seem like a somewhat unnecessary cash grab at this point in cinema history. The original Men in Black, based on the obscure Malibu comic series, was a minor cultural phenomenon in my high school days; Barry Sonnenfeld combined quirky humour with Rick Baker’s fantastic creature creations to create what seemed like a fresh and exciting take on aliens and secret organizations that played well in the X-files era.

However, the original hasn’t aged as well in my recollections. The slapdash sequel certainly played a part in tarnishing my fond memories of the original, which in 1997 on the heels of Independence Day cemented Will Smith as an international superstar; but the explosion of superior material with similar comic book origins and science fiction subject matter also serves to highlight the original's limitations. For instance, Guillermo del Toro’s two Hellboy films offer a take on the story of a secret organization that keeps Earth safe from extraordinary threats (B.P.R.D. rather than MIB) that is both more fully realized as a world and takes less condescending position to the subject matter.

Thus, in the year 2012 it’s going to take more than quirky creature designs and a weary looking Will Smith cracking wise to really satisfy fans of science fiction and comedy.

The plot of Men in Black III takes Smith’s Agent J back in time attempting to stop Boris the Animal (Flight of the Concords’ Jermaine Clement, channeling Tim Curry) from killing Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) before K puts him away 40 years in LunarMax penal colony. K’s retroactive death thereby leaves the Earth open to alien invasion in the present. J must convince a young Agent K (Josh Brolin) of the truth of his story and along the way discover something about what shaped K into the taciturn and cantankerous partner he’s known for the past 15 years.

The film takes what feels like a long time to get going, which with its brisk runtime is nearly fatal. Most of the jokes fall fairly flat in the first 30 min or so before Jay travels back to the 1960s on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch. It is possible that the most enjoyable thing the film offers is Josh Brolin’s uncanny impression of a young Tommy Lee Jones. Along with Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) as a friendly alien who can see into multiple timelines, Sonnenfeld has benefitted from his past working relationship with the Coen brothers to poach some of their recent stars. Alas, he was not able to secure Javier Bardem for the villain role, causing Boris to remain somewhat disposable and nonthreatening and denying us the possibility of furthering this film’s status as a No Country for Old Men reunion.

The world of the 1960s MIB is charmingly rendered, with the genius move of having the aliens populating the headquarters recall the science fiction films of the era, rubber masks and all. (I swear I spotted a Gorn somewhere in there). Also, the setting offers the opportunity for a gag featuring Bill Hader as a 60s icon with a secret connection to the MIB, but I can’t say that it is a complete success. The possibilities of exploring 60s social and sexual mores from the perspective of an alien-populated past are mostly dismissed, apart from a joke about J being a black man in a suit driving a stolen car. Furthermore, a subplot involving a past romance between K and O (played in the present by Emma Thompson and in the past by Alice Eve) seems to be strangely abandoned to the status of passing interest.

Still, in the end the film’s time travelling mechanisms orchestrate an ending that is surprisingly moving in the way that it changes our perceptions of the rest of the series retroactively. Drawing on the best kinds of time travel stories, such as Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” or the original TerminatorMen in Black III potentially ripples back and improves the cohesiveness of the whole series, but I’d have to revisit the first two films again to be sure that isn’t a complete non sequitur. The final image that the film leaves us from the 1960s, before a coda at a diner in the present day, is certainly an affecting one.

While far from a perfect film, this third entry in the series certainly ends it (if they should choose to) on a more satisfying note than the second film and does its best to offer a poignancy that the rest of the series may not earn.

Men in Black III (2012)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; written by Etan Cohen based on the Malibu Comics characters created by Lowell Cunningham; starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Alice Eve, Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jermaine Clement.

6 out of 10