NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Men in Black was one of those rare, out-of-nowhere pictures (it was loosely based on a minor comic book) where all the ingredients were in proper proportion, and there was a fresh, surprising feel to the mix of humour, action and genre concepts. Like The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, it was fine as it was and the worst thing that could happen to it was any attempt to turn it into a franchise. That seemingly dried up after a same-again-but-less sequel and director Barry Sonnenfeld’s other go-round with a Will Smith sf comedy Wild Wild West suggested the team was pretty much bust. However, nothing profitable stays dead in Hollywood and here, after a great deal of production tsuris (you know, this was the one where they thought it’d be fun to start a summer effects blockbuster without the hassle of a script everyone would only have to learn), is the result. Men in Black 3 isn’t the worst movie of its type, but it’s consistently less fun than it ought to be. Weirdly, after that non-script thing, it ties itself in time-travel knots coming up with a plot that makes sense and a last-reel detour into sincerity (built, yet again, around father issues – did anyone in Hollywood have a supportive Dad who was ‘there for them’?) which asks us to invest emotionally in characters who’ve always been deadpan jokes rather than real people. It doesn’t have much in the way of funny business, so that Will Smith looks edgy rather than cool and talented performers just wait around in the hope that a laugh line will plop out of nowhere. This is probably when a script would have come in handy: Etan Cohen, not to be confused with Ethan Coen, is credited, but other hands presumably dabbled. The length of development on the project (and the number of different-page colours in the shooting script they thought they didn’t need) can be gauged from the fact that the dates of the backstory don’t add up: K says he’s worked for Z for forty years in 2012, but they’re colleagues 43 years earlier in the flashback.
In a prologue, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), an alien biker with claws in every orifice and a bone-spitting familiar in his palm, breaks out of prison on the moon and goes back in time to 1969, when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) foiled his plot to bring about an alien invasion of Earth, shot off his arm and arrested him. After a few scenes with J (Smith) and K at the funeral of Rip Torn’s now-absent Z and O (Emma Thompson) making a fair replacement, the past is scrambled. Only J – for reasons even the script doctors can’t square away – remembers that K wasn’t killed by Boris at Cape Canaveral during the Apollo 11 moon mission launch. Boris’s vast alien ships are now invading, because a mcguffin doodad K now no longer put on the Titan rocket to ringfence the Earth isn’t working, and J has to jump off the Chrysler Building in 3D to travel back and put things right. Though not exactly unprecedented, since it was a feature of the Austin Powers films, there are a few stretches of man-out-of-time humour as J wanders through a year when cops automatically assumed a black man in a cool car was a thief. We also have a brief glimpse of a period version of the MiB base which isn’t quite as jarring as it might be because the base seen in earlier films already had a retro Man From UNCLE look. David Rasche is a reasonable fit as young Rip Torn while an underused Alice Eve plays young Emma Thompson (however, we remember young Emma Thompson – she looked nothing like Alice Eve).
The best thing in MiB3 is Josh Brolin as Young Agent K, doing a much better impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones than Jones himself does in the frame scenes and struggling against the odds to make something quite moving of the way the younger character drifts towards being the deadpan grouch he is in the present (the script hammers this too many times). The worst thing is Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man) as an alien in a silly hat who can see possible futures and speaks in a squeaky voice – he’s the worst incarnation of mystic quirky wisdom in the movies since The Jewel of the Nile and kills every scene he’s in. There are the traditional MiB gloopy alien monsters and chases in bizarro vehicles (the big wheel cycles used in a major set-piece look like the things seen in that South Park episode), and a sustained, if inept parody of the Warhol Factory where Andy (Bill Hader) is revealed as an undercover faker who can’t stand his own work or his entourage. It winds up with sustained but unsuspenseful dangling off the gantries at the Apollo launch and Mike Colter as the African-American Colonel in charge of Canaveral Security who has a plot function that’s easy to see coming and hard to defend.
Over the end credits is another Will Smith raps number, which relies heavily on samples from ‘Love is Strange’ – not a 1969 hit – that remind you how much better that song was than the one you’re listening to.