The Men in Black films feel a little like signposts in the life of Will Smith. The first one hit theaters in 1997, when he was still cultivating his reputation as Mr. Summer and could, for a while, do no wrong with audiences. The previous two summers had seen Bad Boys and Independence Day, so the swaggering, tongue-in-cheek genre-based action movie was right in line with Smith’s general persona. But Men in Black II came after a series of films that seemed to temper the public’s hunger for Smith, or at least their conception of him as a summer titan. Arriving in 2002 and sandwiched, release-wise, between the serious Ali and the bombastic Bad Boys II, the second MiB film felt small, like a modest episode of a network series that had somehow been padded to 88 minutes and sheepishly sent out to theaters. The black suit looked wrong on Smith, like a costume he’d found in a trunk and had donned to remind us what we liked about him in the first place. It smelled of trying a bit too hard, and though that’s always been part of Smith’s appeal — this is a man who emphatically wants you to like him — it came across as needy instead of merely earnest. He’s split his acting roles since then between the serious if somewhat wobbly fare he’s capable of carrying with charm and dignity (The Pursuit of Happyness) and the genre stories that got him where he is in the first place (I Am Legend, Hancock). He hasn’t appeared on screen in four years, though. So what do we make of Men in Black 3?
It feels pretty much like what you’d expect: an inoffensive, well-meaning movie from a man both eager and able to remind you why you started liking him in the first place. The story and script are better than the second film’s — Etan Cohen’s first draft was then tweaked by David Koepp and later Jeff Nathanson — but what makes the film work is the way it feels connected to who Smith has become as a performer and creator. It’s funny and amiable, pleasant in the moment yet ultimately easy to put out of your mind once it’s gone. It means well, gets the job done, carries the comedy with more skill than the drama, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It would be tremendously unfair to call it a bad movie, though it’s also not quite right to embrace it as a good one. Rather, it’s a kind of mild and easygoing diversion. The whole thing feels like one of the false memories stories Smith’s Agent J tells the civilians whose brains he wipes for greater purpose: a good enough tale, if ultimately insubstantial.
The trick of all sequels is to justify their existence, and at that, Men in Black 3 somewhat succeeds. All films are commercial enterprises, but sequels are doubly so: the filmmakers have to work that much harder to make a pure cash grab feel like an organic outgrowth of a story you already thought had concluded. The Men in Black films have never felt like a series of independent yet cohesive adventures, either, and not just because of the length of time between installments. (It’s been a decade since the last one.) The first film ended with a definite passing of the torch as Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K left the covert alien-monitoring agency, meaning the second film had to find a way to shoehorn him back in. Things are similarly bumpy here. The story revolves around J and K’s relationship and how it relates to the man K used to be, and it uses time travel as a means to retcon a number of plot threads we’re meant to believe have run through the entire series even though they’re brand new. Like I said, it mostly works. The time travel story is fun without getting too complicated, and returning director Barry Sonnenfeld keeps things moving at a fairly steady clip. Yet the story’s twists feel like easy cheats. They don’t color or amplify what came before. The film makes no real case for its existence other than the innocuous, low-level fun you might occasionally find in it.
The film is also plagued by a general laziness that’s hard to pin down. For instance, as J, Smith spends a lot of time mugging for the camera and acting as if he can’t quite believe the way K acts, or the types of extraterrestrial scrapes they’re getting into. Yet he’s not new, and at one point he talks about having been with the agency for 14 years. So we’re supposed to buy his seniority and skill but also identify with him as the fish out of water, which makes for a somewhat confusing ride. Additionally, the script is loaded with moments of ungainly exposition that stick out even in the season that’s brought us Battleship: when it becomes clear that the villain, a vicious alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), is going to travel back in time to hunt a young Agent K, we actually hear Boris say, “I’m going to go back in time and kill him.” It’s delivered with such ugly, dry utility, almost right into the camera, it’s hard not to believe the filmmakers stuck it in simply to save themselves a few scenes of character development that would’ve required slightly more effort of the audience. Sure, time travel can be philosophically heavy, but this isn’t Primer. And we’re not even dealing with the mechanics of the thing here, just the villain’s motivation. He announces it as if he’s checking it off a list, which I can’t help but feel is the way Sonnenfeld felt each shot set-up.
The genial lack of effort extends to the film’s version of the past, too. At one point, J has to travel back to 1969 to save the young K and restore order to the timeline. Sonnenfeld’s depiction of the late 1960s is costumed and acted as if it were a lost episode of “Saved by the Bell,” full of flower children with wild fringes saying “Make love, not war.” Granted, the Men in Black films aren’t known for their accuracy. But it’s one thing to set a story in a slightly heightened New York that feels like the kind of place an alien would happily hide. It’s another to turn the story into a broad cartoon with weak punch lines. It’s cute, and in the worst way.
The most enjoyable part of the film turns out to be Josh Brolin as the young Agent K. (Jones, oddly, is barely in the film.) He’s funny and dry, and he easily slips into Jones’s Texas drawl. The only stretch is the big one that has him playing 29 years old, when in real life he’s 44 and a few months Smith’s senior. J makes a joke about the young K’s rougher-than-expected appearance being the result of “city miles,” and it’s a nice enough nod to the fact that Brolin is the absolute wrong age for the story. Still, he carries it well, so he mostly gets away with it.
That’s the phrase and idea I keep coming back to as I think about Men in Black 3: “mostly gets away with it.” It’s a film that only barely holds together, that only succeeds by the slimmest of margins, the most forgiving of measures. It won’t break any hearts, but it won’t win many, either. From a franchise and aesthetic standpoint, its existence has as much meaning as its nonexistence. It occupies a weird middle-ground for films, and it’s hard not to think about it in terms of Smith’s search for a modern identity. Like its central plot, the film feels like a time machine to a different age, and there are moments in it when you remember what it was like for Smith to be on top of the world, and for us to want him there. Movies like this aren’t what put Smith on top. They’re what knocked him down. A few more, and he’s going to need a time machine more than ever.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.