In the last couple years, Will Smith has tried so hard to distance himself from his nineties’ Will Smith persona that I’d all but forgotten how charming it actually is. Even at age forty-four, he can pull off the young rebel, evoking a man who still marvels at the world and goes to bat for the little people. If his “hip” slang and mannerisms strike you as grossly outdated, just remember that his character in Men in Black 3 has been functioning outside of mainstream society for nearly fifteen years.
For those of you who don’t remember, the original Men in Black (1997) starred Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents J and K respectively. Based on the Marvel comic book series by Lowell Cunningham, it told of a secret government organisation dedicated to maintaining law and order among the nation’s extraterrestrial populace, much like beat cops protecting the peace in between doughnut breaks. Since then, the franchise has become more about J and K’s friendship, with the former playing the petulant rookie and the latter, the jaded veteran.
Three movies in, you might think director Barry Sonnenfeld ought to have run the well dry, especially in light of the dreadful Men in Black II (2002), but this latest instalment bypasses the issue by way of time travel, allowing the comedic duo to meet again, this time with semi-equal footing. You see, the perp in one of K’s first cases, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), has escaped space prison and (literally) jumped back to 1969 in order to rewrite history, so it falls on J to track down the villain and prevent a retroactive alien invasion.
Once in the past, our hero teams up with a young K, of course. He’s played by Josh Brolin, not that anyone would know the difference. In fact, the actor proves so effective at mimicking Jones’ mannerisms I spent his first few appearances in wide-eyed admiration and then promptly forgot about the performance, on some level convinced I was watching the same person. It helps that sixties K doesn’t turn out quite the same character, exuding a certain warmth and playfulness J never expected to find in his partner. How the man in black lost his groove comprises one of the story’s driving enigmas, and the answer is rather affective in a convoluted Back to the Future sort of way.
This comes as a pleasant surprise, given the Men in Black franchise has always struggled with the contradiction inherent to its premise: how do you get viewers to invest in a grand adventure when your central joke lies in the characters treating it as a minor nuisance? Screenwriter Etan Cohen finds an elegant solution to the problem: make the threat personal to your heroes. J still isn’t all that impressed with the prospect of interplanetary warfare, but he cares intimately about saving his best friend’s life and finding out what makes him tick.
I appreciate the filmmakers’ eagerness to tread uncharted ground, the way, for example, they relegate any running gag from the previous flicks to a few background Easter eggs. Several new bits had me laughing out loud, such as the clever misdirection with Andy Warhol (Bill Hader), but my favourite moments involve Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an extraterrestrial being who perceives all timelines simultaneously. From a plot standpoint, the little guy comes off like one of those RPG characters who provide clues as to where you should go and keep blocking the way until you acquire the right item. However, I love the way he attaches catastrophic fates to mundane occurrences, casually expanding the themes of the series.
The first Men in Black played up the fact that we, as humans, are mere blips in relation to the cosmos. The second, uh, did it again. With Men in Black 3, Sonnenfeld entertains the notion that the big picture, as it were, consists of a mosaic of all the small moments in our lives. In other words, he’s taken the series’ core message one step further by not only reminding us of our insignificance but celebrating it as well. Not bad for a sequel no one had demanded.