In the past, Will Smith really hasn’t done anything for me. With a few dramatic exceptions, the former Fresh Prince always seems to be in the mode of Will Smith playing Will Smith playing a particular character with his schtick never quite drawing me in. He's embraced the loud, obnoxious black guy act to superstar heights with the BAD BOYS flicks, INDEPENDENCE DAY, and, of course, a pair of MEN IN BLACK films. He’s been able to do more with the routine than the likes of Chris Tucker and Martin Lawrence, who also have been forced into this similar persona that I guess is how mainstream audiences see African-American actors. However, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Due to this grating personality, I’m not a fan of the previous two MEN IN BLACK movies. The first one I thought was okay, nothing special, but it was Smith’s rookie Agent J that overshadowed the few things that did work. The more time I spent with J and away from the alien creations of Rick Baker, the less I enjoyed the film. MEN IN BLACK II was more of the same, only with less engaging story work and the irritating Will Smith tone kicked into a higher gear. But something funny happened on my way through MEN IN BLACK 3… I noticed that a more mature Will Smith wasn’t relying on the crutch of constant one-liners (a “pimp slap the shiznit” does sneak its way onto the scene, but you can’t expect to take all the West Philadelphia out of the man). I noticed that the comedy was taking a back seat to the sci-fi. I noticed that I was actually having a good time… and it was happening by the reduction of the very things that I couldn’t stand about the previous two. The reasons I found myself liking MEN IN BLACK 3 was because it felt like the anti-MEN IN BLACK. Maybe you can teach an old dog some new tricks.
It’s been 10 years since the Men in Black last had to save the world, and yet only a little bit has changed. Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is still the same surly, mean son of a bitch he’s always been. It’s just gotten a bit worse with the aging process. Zed’s dead – Who knew I’d ever have the chance to write that again? – and he’s been replaced by Agent O (Emma Thompson) as the head of MIB, and Smith’s Agent J is a little bit older, a little wiser and a little more seasoned as an MIB veteran who’s seen some shit. K and J remain partners, no closer as friends, still investigated the same extraterrestrial activity on a daily basis. Their existence has become rather mundane until the revenge-minded space criminal Boris (Don’t call him “The Animal”), played by Jemaine Clement, escapes from Lunar Max prison where he was put more than 40 years ago by a young K for multiple murders. Boris hasn’t been able to forget that he’s lost his arm, so, rather than make his way to Earth for vengeance against an older, less spry K, he plans to travel back in time to 1969 to kill K, retain his arm for the future and prevent the protective ArcNet shielf from ever being implemented, allowing his Boglodites to invade, destroy and take over. That means it’s going to be up to Agent J to prevent that from happening by going back in time himself to stop both old Boris and new Boris from changing the time-space continuum.
Because J is now the one driving the action of the film and not necessarily the comic relief to play off the more stern K, it’s a different side of Will Smith than the series has shown. J may remain curious about the things out there that he might not need to know, but he realizes there’s a much different approach to getting the answers he seeks. It’s not through attitude; it’s by detective work, knowledge and experience. This isn’t the kid Will Smith that we started with. He’s been replaced by Will Smith, the grown man, and MEN IN BLACK 3 is a better film because of it. There’s an emotional connection between J and K that exists, even if Tommy Lee Jones tries his hardest to stop it from settling in for the audience. After all, it’s a bit difficult to see why J would have any sort of love for this man who barely utters two words to him while driving between assignments.
That’s where Josh Brolin comes in, breathing fresh air into the MEN IN BLACK series as the younger version of K, the optimistic and less grizzled one who has a charm and likeability to him that elevates the J-K relationship beyond just partners, but to people you could genuinely see as friends. Brolin is fantastic in MEN IN BLACK 3, out-Tommy Lee Jonesing Tommy Lee Jones, while adding warmth to the character. At first, Brolin’s Jones impression feels gimmicky, as if the fact that he’s not really Tommy Lee Jones will be what’s played up for the film’s laughs. But he’s able to sink into the role quite easily, reenergizing the chemistry between the two. With the reined-in Smith no longer getting in the way, it allows a true examination of their dynamic, which leads to an interesting exploration of K’s back story, namely how he ended up as Jones plays him, but it also leaves room for the story to actually contain some emotion and real stakes, making for both an entertaining and exciting third act where anything seems possible and no one is necessarily safe.
Even with Brolin turning in a strong performance and Smith a much improved one, it’s Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the movie. As Griffin, a target of Boris who holds the key to the ArcNet, Stuhlbarg’s peculiarity as an alien with the ability to see the future creates all sorts of options for a film built on the idea of time travel. There’s a sweetness about Griffin, who wears a mix of pajamas and winter wear, as someone who hopes things always turn out okay, even though he can see that that’s not always the case. Griffin has the unique ability to see many different futures, with the most trivial moment or effect triggering a domino effect of things to follow, all of which he’s seen as happening yet not knowing which would become realities until they occur. It’s in Griffin that Etan Cohen’s script really shows the most bite, briskly moving back and forth among Griffin’s visions and the details which they’re built on. Furthermore, this is where director Barry Sonnenfeld deserves the most credit. Navigating alternate timelines and futures isn’t the easiest task, and yet Sonnenfeld is able to keep MEN IN BLACK 3 together as he brings the film through a minefield of disaster, where the slightest deviation from a difficult set-up could collapse the entire story.
It took the MEN IN BLACK series a few films to finally get the formula right, and, even then, they had to go back in time to before the original MEN IN BLACK even happened, but MEN IN BLACK 3 is the most watchable and fun of the franchise. That may not be the case for everyone, particularly those who have an affinity for the first film, but, as someone who wasn’t excited by anything MEN IN BLACK offered up previously, MEN IN BLACK 3 is the best of the three.
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