Fifteen years ago, Men in Black was released in theaters. It further cemented Will Smith‘s star status, gave his high-energy style a perfect foil with Tommy Lee Jones‘ dour-yet-playful performance, and provided a fun, upbeat experience that was delightfully silly and bizarre (I still crack up when Smith tells Jones, “Awww. You brought that tall man some flowers!”). Strangely, Men in Black 3 doesn’t draw strength from anything that made the original film an enjoyable experience. Instead, the latest sequel finds its heart in supporting characters, and letting special-effects makeup guru Rick Baker run absolutely wild as he swings his marvelous alien creations into the 1960s. It’s a shame that Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones’ performance, and the humor can’t match Baker’s bravado and creativity.
Alien assassin Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has escaped from a space prison on the moon, and has his sights set on killing Agent K (Jones), the man who took Boris’ arm and whose actions led to the extinction of his violent and dangerous species. For Boris, it’s not enough to simply kill K; he must go back to 1969 and kill K in the past so that Boris’ species won’t be destroyed, and can invade Earth. When his plan is successful, Agent J (Smith) must travel one day further back in time, save the young Agent K (Josh Brolin), stop Boris and young Boris’ nefarious plot, thereby once again protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe.
The first act of Men in Black 3 is a surprisingly joyless experience with Jones and Smith acting like two kids who have been forced to go to summer school. The two characters have been partners for almost fourteen years, and yet they seem even further apart for no apparent reason other than the movie needs J to wonder why young K is so much more fun. When J finally travels back in time and teams up with young K, the movie develops a lighter, more buoyant tone, although it’s not from J. Smith’s shtick is no longer fresh (prince of Bel-Air), and in Men in Black 3 his performance feels redundant to the point of self-parody. When he looks at grotesque, giant fish alien inside a tank at a Chinese restaurant and says, “You must be from the planet daaaaaamn,” we don’t laugh. We cringe.
There aren’t many of these cringe-worthy moments, but there aren’t many laughs either. When J is walking through his new alternate universe (the one where K died in 1969), and doesn’t understand what’s going on, he thinks everyone at MIB HQ is playing a prank on him. “The prerequisite for the joke,” J tells MIB chief O (Emma Thompson), “is that it’s supposed to be funny.” The movie should have taken this piece of advice to heart. Occasionally a good joke will come along, but most of the laugh-lines land with a deafening thud.
Despite a dull first act, Smith’s phoned-in performance, and the flat comic dialogue, Men in Black 3 at least has some liveliness to offer. As the young K, Brolin channels Jones’ performance but makes it feel new, not only because the character is generally happier, but also because Brolin seems to be having fun with the experience. If Sony is looking to move the Men in Black franchise forward, they should let Brolin be the new lead and give him a new partner.
The other scene-stealer is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Griffin, an alien who can see all possible timelines. The character functions as a kind of plot-laxative designed to remedy the script problems that plagued the production in the middle of shooting. Sending in a screenwriter surrogate (he can see all outcomes and tells characters what to do and where to go) should come off as jarring and crass, but Stuhlbarg’s warm and charming performance makes Griffin the character we care about the most. And as for Clement, he gets to shout and wield a catchphrase (“Agree to disagree,” Boris says before some kills), but he also gets a big boost from Rick Baker’s stellar make-up effects.
Baker won his fifth Best Makeup Oscar for the original Men in Black (he’s racked up seven to date), and he could be due for at least another nomination for his work here (it would be his thirteenth). Director Barry Sonnenfeld let Baker have carte blanche, and the makeup effect genius had a field day not only crafting aliens, but sending them through a 1960s filter. Baker uses the bright, psychedelic colors to come up with some particularly imaginative designs, but Boris is the standout. The character has disgusting skin tendrils that wrap around dark sunglasses, and hide a creepy insectoid that can fire lethal darts into his prey. If I were six-years-old, I would have nightmares about Boris the Animal.
Unfortunately, there’s simply not enough imagination and energy to go around. There have been three Men in Black movies, and all of them have the bad guy trying to get to a spaceship. There are also plot-holes and gimmicks that even Griffin can’t fix (the movie wants the joke of having a giant deneuralizer in the 1960s, but later we see that they have portable ones simply because they’re convenient for the plot). These kinds of shortcuts overshadow the proof that there’s still life left in the franchise, and it’s frustrating to see far too much reliance on aspects that no longer work or needed more polishing. The Men in Black aren’t dead. They’re just snoozing.