What has changed since 1997? Certainly the scope of what computer effects are able to accomplish has shifted. We’ve grown accustomed to the things that used to wow us. For instance, that final reveal at the end of Men in Black where the galaxy is all part of a game of marbles was immensely awe-inspiring when I saw that film in the theater. Today, that scene would not be enough to wow me. We’ve grown jaded, and this is not good for Men in Black.
The first film put a lot of stock in special effects wizardry and make-up. It is one of the rare occasions where a big-budget blockbuster’s special effects were used to make jokes even funnier. It is, in my opinion, the first film to truly integrate computer effects in a way that served the film and made it better. And yes, I’ve seen Forrest Gump.
Men in Black had a huge effect on me when I was younger. I was introduced to a world that was very similar to my own, yet it contained all of the nightmares and dreams that, at the age of seven, only I could see. I loved that aliens were real and living amongst us. I loved the idea of a disguise, of a secret agent, and of having gadgets that accomplish impossible, amazing things. The film played with the importance of size. The “midget cricket” serves as an excellent taste of foreshadowing, and is one of many clever, inventive storytelling devices used in the film.
Will Smith’s Agent J truly goes through a narrative arc in the film–beginning his story as a cocky and world-weary NYPD officer and ending the film as a man who knows there’s always mystery left in the universe. He grows to truly care about his partner and the planet that he is saving. Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K is a delightful play on the classic Jones character, looking stone-faced into the absurd and asking it to follow arbitrary rules. He, too, follows a satisfying arc where he grows from being a jaded intergalactic detective to a happy, blissfully ignorant retiree. Men in Black is one of those great Hollywood blockbusters that just works. The chemistry between the actors, the visual effects, the world-building, and the story structure just seem to effortlessly click.
So what went wrong with Men in Black II?
Well, this poster sums up a lot of it. Look at Agents K and J sitting in those chairs and holding those guns. Those chairs are featured in a famous recruiting scene from the first film. The guns are featured from the finale of the first film. Neither of those things appear in the second film. However, approximately everything else does. The second film seems to exist for the sole purpose of retreating the first film. The coffee-pouring insects that worked so well as an element of world-building? Lets cast them as crucial, plot-progressing characters. The dog with a couple of lines that serves as comic relief during the most tense section of the first film? Lets improbably make him an agent and make him spout out hundreds of desperate attempts at catchphrases.
Also, the first film had a fantastic, disgusting villain in Vincent D’Onofrio’s cockroach. He was gross, manic, mean, offensive, and exactly the kind of villain these guys would have to fight on a weekly basis. He was a roach, he was vermin, and he wanted revenge on a planet that treated his family like scum. His motive is built into the audience’s everyday life. It’s a brilliant conceit. Lara Flynn Boyle’s sexy plant-vine villain is…less brilliant. First of all, her minion is the instantly dated joke of Johnny Knoxville acting, and second of all, she’s a lingerie model who doesn’t seem to have any other motive that just being evil.
The second film is sloppy. It resurrects Agent K because it needs to, it uses a sexy villain because marketing executives asked it to, it overindulges itself on previously used side-characters because it didn’t trust the creative team to create new ones, and it seems to only exist because somebody out there liked the talking dog.
So why even bother with Men in Black 3? If the second film was already desperately clinging onto its franchise roots for inspiration, how must the third film fare?
Well, surprisingly, it’s actually pretty good.
What the third film carries with it is the wisdom gained from the dreadful sequel. Gone are the petty references to the first film. Gone is a distractingly over-sexualized villain (unless you find the man in the above picture hunky), and gone is all of the sloppy plotting that comes with bringing back an essentially killed-off character. Which is funny, because this film’s plot is bringing back a killed-off character.
I’ll make it short, Jemaine Clement’s hilariously cocky Boris The Animal escapes from Lunar Max prison and goes back in time. In 1969, Boris kills Agent K. Agent J, now a senior agent after 14 years of experience, is the only person who remembers Agent K from the present, so he too goes back in time to stop Boris from killing K. It’s not a particularly creative premise, but the execution is fantastic.
Before I go into the performances and the excellent plotting, I have to point out the time-travel scene in which Will Smith’s Agent J jumps off the Chrysler building. It is one of the greatest, most imaginative special effects shots I’ve seen in quite some time. See the movie just for that shot alone.
Anyway, Agent J makes it back to the sixties and the usual time-travel hilarity ensues. Andy Warhol is a bored, undercover MiB agent! Cops are racist! The Rolling Stones aren’t old! I thought, for a few minutes into the sequence, that the film was going to roll over and just deliver cheap gags based around the time-travel conceit. But I was wrong. In fact, the film does very little in the form of cheap gags. When it tips its hat to the original film, it does so with background action. We see the site of the finale of the end of the first film deep in the background during a chase sequence, for instance. Nothing too forthright, nothing distracting. The film is just focused on the story it is telling, and it is focused on the characters who must make their arcs.
Replacing Tommy Lee Jones this time around (Jones is in the film, but he probably only worked for a weekend) is Josh Brolin, who does an absolutely remarkable impression of Tommy Lee Jones. It almost transcends imitation and turns into downright brilliance. Brolin disappears into the role and adds an all new dimension to the character of Agent K. I was shocked by Brolin’s performance, and it gave the film a whole new weight that I haven’t seen in the other two films. Also joining the cast is a character named Griff who can see every possible future and past of any particular scenario. He is played with awe-shucks sincerity by A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg. Griff too adds to the emotional spectrum of the film. He adds the whimsy that was absent in Men in Black II because Agent J was no longer new to the club.
I hesitate to give you any more information than this, for fear I’ll spoil some of the last act, which is a magnificently constructed set-piece that ends on an uncharacteristically emotional note for the series.
Was Men in Black 3 necessary? Not really, but it certainly works much better as a direct sequel to the first film than the second, as if the filmmakers too are embarrassed by that half-hearted entry. This film is funny, engaging, and surprisingly poignant. If you didn’t like the first film, this one won’t convert you, but if you too were disappointed by the second film’s sloppy handling of the characters, then I think you should check this one out. It is an excellent way to spend your afternoon.