There’s an old saying “You can’t go home again” which is certainly applicable in cinema as much as it pertains to growing into adulthood. In the case of Men in Black 3 it’s a harsh reminder that only luminaries like Ben Franklin can catch lightning in a bottle more than once (and with a kite and some string no less). The wonderful movie magic of the original Men in Black is now fifteen years behind us; the misfire of a sequel ten years back. It’s a Herculean task presented to Barry Sonnenfeld; moving past the missteps of MIB2 in trying to recapture what made the first entry so much fun to ride.
The first film was a fun fish out of water tale where we rode shotgun for Agent J’s (Will Smith) origin story. We were well fed on a buffet of weird and strange while exploring the world behind the world through J’s uninitiated eyes. It worked because everything new to J was also new to us. Where the second film faltered is multifaceted, but most grievously it lost that wonderful, wide eyed sense of fun that was such an integral part of the first chapter. J is a jaded, experienced agent and he’s been there, done that. When a film series’ primary strength is exploring the weird and wild hidden among us everyday, something is lost when our tour guide is disinterested.
I bring all of this up specifically to help better explain where MIB3 both fails and succeeds. If you’ve viewed any of the promotional material surrounding this film, it’s clear that time travel plays a major element in the plot. We’ve got our major heavy, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement in a fascinating makeup job that gets more interesting as the film progresses) traveling back in time to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) before he can wound and arrest him in 1969 and Agent J following him back to help the younger version of his partner stop both versions of villain. It’s actually an interesting premise that eventually sets its hooks in pretty well.
Unfortunately it takes time really getting up to steam, which could push many audience members away. All of the scenes in the present time period seem to fall completely flat on their face, with many of the jokes only soliciting polite pity laughs from a packed house. It’s like hanging with someone making awkward jokes which you know they think are hysterical but really just suck, though you don’t want to hurt their feelings. If this doesn’t sound promising, you’re right; the film seemed to be headed irredeemably downhill at light speed.
It was at this moment that the film did a complete one hundred and eighty degree about face to become an entertaining and engrossing popcorn flick that, in it’s own way, tugged at the heart strings. This tonal shift accompanies Agent J’s trip back in time to 1969, where he hooks up with young Agent K; Josh Brolin in a masterful interpretation of Tommy Lee Jones’ vocal and behavior mannerisms. The story is that he spent three months in a motel room with sound equipment and a collection of Lee’s films to make this happen. It’s an amazing transformation to witness and it’s one of the reasons that the film is better once he’s in the black suit and tie of K. But more than that, Men in Black 3 is redeemed by returning to what made the first one so much fun: even though he’s a seasoned agent, J is now a fish out of water again in the world of 1969. This opens up the opportunity for us to ride along with him again as he learns about all the cool and weird things with us.
Since the majority of our celluloid time is spend in the 1969 period, more of the film is good than isn’t. If that doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement, well it’s not. Make no mistake, this is a film with flaws but the good outweighs the bad here to produce a fun, popcorn munching flick. If you’ve seen The Avengers a few times already and are looking to check out something else, you could do much worse than Men in Black 3. It’s better than the second installment by a long shot but still lags a few miles behind the original.
This newest entry proves that while it is true that we can’t go home again, we can at least go visit for dinner and drinks every once in a while.
Men in Black III opens today in Philly-area theaters.