Here we are in Men in Black 3 (2012; dir. Barry Sonnenfeld) with two familiar partners back in action. The chemistry surrounding Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, as Agents J and K, helped propel the first two installments of the Men in Black series. Even their chemistry, and the special insights afforded by what amounts to an origins story, can’t quite energize installment three. We encounter the same familiar aliens. The same situations in sordid New York dives and shops and cafes, the same hi-tech gizmos and special effects. It just don’t quite work. The film resorts to a time-travel gimmick, wherein one of the agents travels back to 1969 to save the other’s life. It just so happens that the first American moon landing is involved, and there are the expected scenes of people in 1969 with 60s hairdos and dress. Andy Warhol makes an appearance, as does, briefly, Howard Stern. The time travel plot has a special twist that is actually quite poignant, and that casts new light on the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones partnership, but not enough to save the film. The film is fun to watch, and does offer some ingenious moments, perhapos thinks to the script co-written by Etan Coen.
The Men in Black films are satirical and comic, so perhaps it is not fair to complain that many of the aliens are invested with certain recognizably ethnic features, or that when Will Smith travels back to 1969 there are predictable scenes involving his skin color and 1960s racism. And the aliens themselves, many of them in gowns and armor and looking like refugees from a He-Man cartoon or a Battle of the Titans movie or a Lost in Space episode, are not convincing—they’re tired and hackneyed. Should I expect them to be otherwise?
The funniest scene comes when the villain, Boris the Animal, travels back in time to commit mayhem and gets into an argument with his younger self about which of them is the meaner dude. This is a hilarious parody of a so-called time-travel paradox that holds that if one could travel back (or forward) in time he couldn’t occupy the same space with his former or future self. This is supposedly (I say supposedly because it’s never been tested) a physical impossibility.
The standout character is Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien who can foresee and experience every possible permutation of events in the space-time continuum. He’s essential to the plot, and the one true burst of imaginative and creative thinking in a film that needs both badly, despite the surprising moment of true human emotion in the penultimate scene.
And then there is Josh Brolin, wholly convincing as a younger version of the Tommy Lee Jones character. He shares much the same chemistry with Agent J, and actually spends more time on screen than Jones.