You know, we been doing some pretty smart stuff over the past day or so. How about we do something stupid?
After ten years, the only real impression left behind by Men in Black 2 was a vague sense of dread at the announcement of Men in Black 3. After such a badly misfired sequel, the third film in a franchise can do one of two things: either drag the series further down the rat hole, or like Die Hard: With a Vengeance, actually redeem the series. Chalk this one down for option B.
The original film prospered on the casting of Tommy Lee Jones as an anchor for Will Smith. Wouldn’t you know that the third film’s success is the result of an equally inspired bit of casting. More about this later.
Forty years ago, on the eve of America’s first moon launch, a younger Agent K (Jones) foiled an invasion plan by a murderous alien, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), blowing off Boris’s arm in the process. After 40 years imprisoned on the moon, Boris hates two things: his nickname and Agent K. He escapes with the intent to rewrite history. The next day, Agent J wakes up to discover the man he works with has been dead 40 years and an alien invasion is now imminent. To save Earth and his friend, he travels back in time to 1969, teaming up with a younger Agent K (Josh Brolin) to finish off Boris once and for all. However, there are now two Boris-es: 1969 two-armed Boris and 2012 one-armed Boris. One of them is bad enough, looking like the biker from hell, every appendage a deadly weapon.
The casting of Josh Brolin as a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones was a casting masterstroke. Clearly, Jones is past the point in his career where makeup is going to help him play a younger version of himself, and Brolin inhabits the role as if he and Jones shared a hive mind. His delivery and cadence is so close to perfect that the transition between the two actors is seamless.
The 1969 setting allows the filmmakers to have some fun with some iconic cultural touchstones, from the moon landing to the Miracle Mets. Fortunately, they skip the Manson family, and don’t overboard with Will Smith and the “2012 black guy in a less enlightened era” gags. And despite what you might think, Andy Warhol is not an alien.
Rather than rehash familiar elements, cameos from the first two films are used with restraint. The worm guys with the Marlboro fetish are back briefly, but Frank the Pug is not, memorialized by a disturbingly large photo on J’s wall. Rip Torn’s Agent Zed has been replaced by Agent O (Emma Thompson). Her alien-language eulogy for the departed Zed is one of the film’s comic highlights.
The secret to their success with the third film, beyond finding a perfect acting double for Tommy Lee Jones, was not repeating the mistakes of film number two. MiB3 is not a tired rehash of the first movie. It’s familiar enough to fans of the original, but with enough new ideas to qualify as fresh. The bad guy is sufficiently gross and scary, if not exactly groundbreaking or deeply motivated.
There is talk of MiB4, but I hope that they decide three times is the charm. I can’t imagine them doing it again without Josh Brolin, and another time travel story would seem like another retread. Better to quit while they’re ahead.