It’s been 15 years since the clandestine alien wranglers, the Men in Black, first appeared on the big screen and 10 years since their last appearance in Men in Black II (2002). But Agents K and J are back again this summer in Men in Black III, a science-fiction time-travel flick that is fun, but surprisingly not very funny.
As a refresher or introduction for the uninitiated (or neuralyzed), Men in Black is based on a comic-book series by the same name and its men are officers of an underground agency that is so secret that the government doesn’t even know it exists. Its mission is to control and contain alien activity on Earth. Hip and cool Agent J (Will Smith) is partners with his polar opposite, the all-business and grumpy Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). They are the best kept secret in the galaxy and if they think you’ve seen or know too much, you are likely to have your memory erased with a neuralyzer; a small tubular device that instantly wipes your memory with a bright flash of light.
Men in Black III finds Agents K & J still at work protecting us from unruly extraterrestrials when Agent K suddenly disappears from existence. An alien called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), whom the veteran agent had captured in 1969, has escaped from his moon-base prison and traveled back in time, killing Agent K before he would have captured the rogue alien. History is altered and everyone who knew Agent K now thinks he died in the 60s, but somehow Agent J is able to remember him from the present and figures out Boris’ plot, so he travels back in time to stop the alien from killing his partner and bringing an invasion to Earth.
If this sounds a little convoluted, it’s really pretty easy to follow in the context of the movie and is not as heady as it sounds. Men in Black has always blended science-fiction with comedy, at first with great success (MIB I) and not so much the second time around (MIB II); but for MIB III, it is the time-travel elements that keep the film interesting and save it from becoming just an unfunny mess.
Agent J travels to 1969 with a handheld time-trekking gizmo that requires its user to fall through the air holding the device until certain conditions are met and a portal between eras opens up. MIB III does a fantastic job showcasing this sensational time-traveling sequence that is unique and very cool.
Once in the 60s, J has to track down his now 40-year younger partner; played by Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex) in an uncanny separated-at-birth and detached-by-time performance. You’ll swear that Tommy Lee Jones IS Josh Brolin’s father, uncle or alien doppelganger.
MIB III is executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed once again by Barry Sonnenfeld, who helmed the other two MIB movies as well. The film also stars Emma Thompson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the agency director and K’s love interest, Agent O, and David Rasche of TV’s Sledge Hammer fame plays the 1960’s agency director .
Another aspect of the Men in Black franchise that has always been entertaining is the way in which the films blame weird pop culture icons and events in the ‘real world’ on alien activity. MIB III goes to some great places with this theory, especially in a sequence with Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) that art fans are going to love. But there are some missed opportunities here as well, especially in regards to addressing race relations in the 60s.
There will probably never be a more opportune chance, than the premise provided by Men in Black III, for Will Smith, who is arguably the world’s most popular black actor, to artistically comment on the ethnic attitudes of 1960s America. This is only touched on briefly in this movie and as that moment passed I saw potential for what could have been a very interesting and different-themed time-travel film. But, MIB III is not a movie about race prejudice, so it’s not fair to judge it on what it is not. That being said, Men in Black III is not a sappy drama either, but it does have some surprise moments that will play with your heart-strings.
While in the 60’s era, J and the young K hook-up with an alien character named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has the ability to see the infinite potential outcomes that are dependent on the actions taken in any given scenario. He’s kind of a chaos-theory oracle of sorts and he’s the best ‘alien’ role in the film as he helps the MIB agents to overcome their other-world adversary who has teamed-up with himself to destroy the MIB officers and the world.
The character of Griffin is a case again where Men in Black III excelled in its sci-fi aspects and made me wonder if this film series would not have been better served at a straight-up science-fiction film. The comedic facets of this movie are tired and mildly amusing at best, but where it falls short on laughs, it makes up in gratifying fantasy fun.