Back when it was released, Men in Black was something quite exciting. It may not have broken any new ground, but it was clever, funny, and well made, and it cemented Will Smith’s position as a real movie star. It’s been 15 years since then, and in that time, aliens have become the baddies in more or less every other action movie, supporting player Rip Torn has experience a tragic, although comically surreal fall from grace, and Will Smith has gone from the Fresh Prince of Hollywood to pushy showbiz parent.
At some point between then and now, there was also a mediocre sequel that felt a lot like a remake. Which, incidentally is where we come into Men in Black 3.
The film may open with a sequence set in a giant space prison (more on that in a second), but as soon as we’re back on Earth, it’s familiar territory. Smith and Jones, looking sharp, and seeing through strange disguises. The effects have improved, but it’s the same shtick. Not surprising really – there’s only so much you can do with the ‘strange people are aliens and Tommy Lee Jones is grumpy’ thing, and it’s all been done before. Twice.
Which is why it’s such a relief when the film changes pace and heads back to the late 1960s. Unfortunately, once we get past the novelty of 60s-style aliens and retro versions of the MiB tech we’re familiar with, it’s once more back to the same old thing. This time with a Jermaine Clements in the role of Generic Alien Villain (this time known as ‘Boris’). You’d imagine after two previous movies where the baddies wanted to destroy Earth, Men in Black 3 might have some other stakes – a heist perhaps, or maybe drug trafficking – but it doesn’t.
Fortunately the film is redeemed by the B-plot. The main draw of the Men in Black franchise has always been the characters, and here we get a chance to learn more about the most enigmatic of them all, ‘K’. This could have gone horribly wrong – more often than not revealing a character’s past just makes them less interesting (think Wolverine), but here it really works. It’s also offered a fantastic opportunity to see Josh Brolin’s impression of Tommy Lee Jones, which is actually so good that you quickly forget that it’s happening – it’s just Agent K.
Brolin’s isn’t the only impersonation. Alice Eve’s ‘O’ works perfectly with Thompson’s. Meanwhile, Clements does a spot on, if inexplicable, Tim Curry in the role of Boris, while Michael Stuhlbarg, in the exposition-spouting role of Griffin, seems to be channelling late-80s era Robin Williams (which is actually a much better prospect than it sounds).
By far the film’s biggest flaw is the succession of Concepts That Don’t Quite Work – little indulgences that don’t really make a great deal of sense, but were clearly kept in because they were either ‘cool’, or because someone ‘really liked’ them. It’s not that these don’t crop up in most films, it’s just the sheer number in Men in Black 3. The prison break at the start has at least a couple, the most obvious being, ‘Why have we not heard of it before?’, but also, ‘Why are visitors allowed?’, ‘How do visitors even get there?’ and ‘How did Boris communicate with the other prisoners? Or anyone for that matter?’ and that’s just in the pre-credits sequence.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. Ultimately, Men in Black 3 is actually quite an enjoyable film, that offers an interesting expansion of the Men in Black universe. It expands Agent K without making him dull, and through his relationship with Agent O, offers us an emotional spine to the movie that doesn’t revolve around Will Smith’s next conquest.
It also renders Men in Black 2 largely irrelevant, which can only be a good thing.