BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When the alien Boris escapes from Lunar Max prison, he plots to travel back to 1969 to kill Agent K in order to allow his species to invade Earth, leaving Agent J to go back in time to protect his partner.
PROS: Clever background touches, as usual, including a visit to a photo shoot with Andy Warhol; slick direction by Barry Sonnenfeld; fun to watch Josh Brolin ape Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K…
CONS: …but it gets tiring after a while; dull, routine script; the frantic pace doesn’t hide the lack of drive or energy.
The third movie of a film series poses problems. Ostensibly meant to bring a sense of unity and closure, often threequel also marks the point where ideas lose their freshness, familiarity saps vigor, causing actors tire, and energy starts to drain. Exceptions exist, yes, but for every Goldfinger and Toy Story 3 that achieves greatness, a hundred Matrixes threaten revolution, Indiana Jones considers one last crusade, and The Godfather, just as he thought he was out, is drawn back in. There are countless others.
Men in Black III wants to avoid that trap. Actually, it wants to avoid the trap set by Men in Black II, which so closely followed the blueprint of the first movie that it never found its own identity—a difficulty not uncommon with most sequels (Ghostbusters II; Another 48 Hours). And while it manages to skirt the challenges its predecessor faced, and screenwriter Etan Cohen throws in time travel as a plot device, Men in Black III exudes a strong sense déjà vu to the proceedings, as if it doesn’t want to admit the obvious: we’ve seen this all before, and better.
Not that it doesn’t try. Having traveled back to New York City in 1969, Agents J (Will Smith, who, from what I can tell, seems to not have aged at all since the first movie) and K (played in 1969 by Josh Brolin) look for the criminal mastermind Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) at a fashion show, where they run into none other than Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) who turns out to be…not an alien, but an informant spying on aliens (fashion models, it seems, are the real extraterrestrials) who wants out of the business. He pleads with K to fake his death; it seems he is so bored that he’s beginning to paint soup cans. It’s an amusing bit that doesn’t go on so long that the viewer begins to yawn, and the movie needs more of them. Set in the heart of Mad Men territory, Men in Black III only makes a few nods to the period. For all of the setup’s potential promise, it suffers from Cohen’s and director Barry Sonnenfeld’s underuse.
Why has Agent J gone back in time? Agent K apprehended Boris at Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969—resulting in the loss of Boris’s left arm—and activated the ArcNet shield to protect Earth from invasion by Boris’s species, which consequently rendered them extinct. Now Boris the Animal has escaped from Lunar Max prison on the Sea of Tranquility with the intent of taking revenge on Agent K (played in the modern day by Tommy Lee Jones). When Agents J and K investigate a spaceship crash, K figures out that Boris has escaped, but too late to learn his motive: Boris is going back in time to kill K for taking his arm, and to ensure that an alien invasion will take place. (Want to know what it looks like to be completely erased from the chronosynclastic infundibulum? You’ll learn.) Soon J arms himself with pocket-size time machine that can only be activated by falling from a great height (and gives new meaning to “spring forward, fall back), and by jumping from the Chrysler Building, travels to July 15, 1969, to keep K from being killed. (Odd that J appears to remember that he and K spoke the night before, when everybody else believes he’s been dead for over forty years.) Once he gets to 1969 he runs into young K (Brolin) and enlists his help to stop Boris before he can enact his plan.
The chemistry between Smith and Jones grounded some of the first movie’s more implausible moments, and allowed Smith to play well off of Jones’s straight man. The pairing also gave the audience an entry point into the secret organization monitoring all alien life on Earth. We know the setup by now, so should expect to enjoy ourselves watching these two characters as they banter through another adventure. But with Jones’s performance only bookending the main action, Smith must now play opposite Brolin, who apes Jones’s performance. It’s not bad at first, but as the movie progresses the novelty begins to erode, leaving Cohen and Sonnenfeld throw more situations at the time-traveling J. A few are actually quite funny; when J awakens in the 1969 Men in Black Headquarters after being knocked unconscious and taken into custody by Young Agent K, he focuses on an alien pleading on a telephone for bail money. Often, however, things ramble. When J steals a car in 1969, he is stopped by a pair of cops for no other reason than his skin color. When he successfully flashes his Neuralyzer on them to wipe their short-term memories, he scolds them for assuming he stole the car because he was black. (And then sheepishly admits that, yes, he did steal it.)
Cohen’s also invents two potentially interesting secondary characters, from Men in Black’s new commander Agent O (Emma Thompson in the present; Alice Eve in the past) to the alien Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can see all the myriad multiverses converge into a single timeline, yet the script doesn’t make as much use of them as it could. Even Rick Baker’s alien makeup, while competent, doesn’t quite provide the frisson of sense of wonder of previous efforts.
The movie ends with a well-shot fight atop the pre-flight Apollo 11 rocket minutes before takeoff, and it proves to be one of Men in Black III’s better action sequences. But by the time the credits roll one feels not entertained but relieved. No, Men in Black III never reaches the pits of awfulness of the previous iteration, but it doesn’t do much more than cover the same old ground. It’s a joke told once too often, and this time by a ten-year-old who needs his sugar intake monitored.