I would be willing to bet that fifteen years ago when the first Men in Black film premiered, Columbia Pictures thought that they had a huge franchise on their hands. It would be hard to blame them; the film went on to make close to $600 million all told, and had two leads with incredible chemistry. Unfortunately, the first follow-up was more than a little rough around the edges (though still raked in more than $400 million itself), which killed any motivation for a third film. Until now.
Men in Black III actually has a pretty good setup. Boris “Don’t call me” the Animal (Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement) an old, brutal nemesis of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) escapes from prison hell bent on revenge. When he goes back in time to exact his revenge, newly appointed MiB director Agent O (Emma Thompson) sends our intrepid hero Agent J (Will Smith) back in time to stop Boris — and save the world, naturally. Despite his instructions, J enlists the help of a younger K (played wonderfully by Josh Brolin).
This is Will Smith’s movie to carry on his back, but he’s rarely given an opportunity to do so. When he is afforded the opportunity to slip in to that old charming persona we all know and love, it fits him like a glove. Sadly, the film spends a great deal of time meandering through different set pieces, introducing new secondary and tertiary characters who rarely factor into to the greater storyline of the film.
The exception to that rule was Brolin’s turn as the younger Agent K. He gets so much of Tommy Lee Jones’ inflections, intonations and mannerisms pitch perfect, you almost forget for stretches of the film that Brolin didn’t originate the role. He and Smith also manage to replicate the chemistry between the two characters quite well, despite the fact that the story changes that dynamic more than it should. He also makes the audience believe in his relationship with the younger Agent O (Alice Eve), though sadly that story peters out unnecessarily.
A good villain is hard to find, and MiB provides the franchise’s third strike out in that regard. I don’t know Clement from his previous work, and don’t necessarily blame him for the failure here. I just don’t know what direction this character was supposed to take: I think he was supposed to be menacing, but he came across as comical — but in that “I’m laughing AT you not WITH you” kind of way.
Other than Boris, my biggest problem is how the events of 1969 may have — or may not have — defined the dynamic between the two leads. We learn from (the present version of) Agent O that the events surrounding Boris’ capture had a great deal to do with shaping the personality of the Agent K that we know and love. But the problem is — even after the benefit of having seen those events — that it isn’t very clear. I’m treading lightly, as I don’t want to spoil the outcome, but it is important enough to try to dance around things and make this point — though if there is a hypothetical twist you’ll hypothetically see it coming a mile away … hypothetically speaking, of course. But, if I understand exactly what happened, the particular outcome that could have directly affected K actually turned out for the worst.
MiB III is not a horrible flick. As I pointed out, there are several things to appreciate about it, specifically Josh Brolin’s performance. Unfortunately, the sum of the good does not outweigh the piles of the average, which means the overall impression is a large pile of “meh.”